A Free Speech Challenge for Parents

Should a thirteen-year-old be able to purchase a school-shooting simulator without parents’ knowledge or consent?

The Supreme Court says that freedom of speech requires they do have that opportunity. On June 27, in a 7-2 decision, the court struck down a California law barring the sale of graphically violent video games to people under eighteen.

I haven’t seen legal minds commenting on what seem (to me) to be obvious consequences of this decision. If the First Amendment requires that minors be able to purchase graphically violent video games, does this mean minors may attend R-rated movies without an adult or purchase pornography? We have longstanding traditions and laws that regulate the speech to which minors may be exposed without the consent of their parents.

Research on the effects of violent video games has shown that parents and society have reason to be concerned. We’re not talking about the games from my youth like Space Invaders or games that involved a cartoon-like image of a person falling over. Today’s games include graphic, movie-quality images of death and dismemberment. And unlike a movie, which is viewed passively, game players are actively causing the scenes that unfold before them.

Yes, video games are pretend. Of course, they are. Even young teenagers who play the games know they aren’t real. Yet, even passively viewing pretend images affects the way people think. Television commercials are fictional, to the point of fantasy, and we all know this. The reason some of the most successful businesses in the world advertise—even paying over two-million dollars for a thirty-second Super Bowl spot—is not to generously provide free television for us but because data shows that advertising changes consumers’ attitudes and behavior. Active participation, like playing a video game, changes attitudes and behavior more efficiently than passively watching TV.

Anders Behring Breivik, the man charged with killing at least seventy-six people in the recent bomb attack and summer camp shooting in Norway, writes about playing the graphically violent game Modern Warfare 2. To learn more about this game, I was required to enter my birth date on its website, modernwarfare2.infinityward.com. This indicates that the producers of the game recognize the content is inappropriate for children. The game is essentially a combat simulator that provides a virtual training ground for people prone to mass murder.

Will most kids who play games that simulate school shootings live out the roles they are playing? No. Will most kids who play Grand Theft Auto steal cars? No. Very few kids who play violent video games will perform those acts in real life. The changes most kids will experience as a result of playing violent video games are more subtle than becoming mass murderers, but are still quite measurable.

For example, greater exposure to violent media desensitizes people to the effects of violence and aggression. What would normally be abhorrent becomes “not so bad” or perhaps even funny. Violent video games cause users to think more violent thoughts. Typical behavioral effects from these changes in thinking might range from not being appropriately moved by images of real human suffering to being more argumentative and disrespectful.

Although there isn’t ample space here for a full consideration of the effects of using violent video games, I can easily spend an entire class period in my course on child development discussing violent media. Among its well-established effects is that users of violent media are more likely to believe that crime victims deserved their fate. In addition, users of violent media have a distorted view of the world, believing life to be significantly less safe than it is.

It’s true that people who are prone to aggressiveness are more likely to use violent media. It is also true that people who use violent media become more aggressive. None of us want to believe that we will acquire a taste for the distasteful, but if we consume enough of what began as distasteful, it becomes satisfying.

Make no mistake about it; video games can be a great use of free time. Research shows that kids who play video games develop better spatial skills and hand-eye coordination. Multiplayer games can also teach social and management skills. They These games are also just plain fun. Yet the benefits of video games do not require gruesome images.

We endure a lot of ugliness to protect our right to free speech. Like Justices Clarence Thomas and Steven Breyer, I do not believe that denying the sale of violent video games to people under eighteen would have strained the First Amendment. With or without laws that require adult involvement for kids to have questionable material, however, parents must be parents. Laws are no substitute for parental monitoring. While I find the Court’s decision disappointing, it highlights the need for parents to be proactive and willing to make tough decisions.