Reflections Magazine August-September, 2011
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Violent video games assault America's youth

Supreme Court ruling upholds free speech




Violent video games are of no good use. Aggression, delinquent behavior, school problems, and victimization in teenagers have all been correlated to Mature Rated (M-Rated) (age 17+) games played by adolescents. Parents must shun these conduits of wickedness to protect our youth, especially as the recent ruling by America's highest court allows the violent games to continue to be produced.

On June 27, in a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, in favor of free speech: the Court refused to let California regulate the sale or rental of violent video games to children. M-rated titles may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language. Despite complaints about graphic violence, governments do not have the power to “restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed," said the high court, citing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court therefore upheld a federal appeals court decision throwing out the state's ban on the sale or rental of violent video games to anyone under 18. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Sacramento had ruled that the law violated minors' right, and the high court agreed. The California law would have levied $1,000 fines on stores that sold violent video games to minors.

“Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world),” Justice Anton Scalia wrote. “That suffices to confer First Amendment protection,” he continued in his opinion written on behalf of five justices in the majority.

“California’s argument would fare better if there were a longstanding tradition in this country of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence but there is none. Certainly the books we give children to read or read to them when they are younger contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example are grim indeed,” Justice Scalia observed in his conclusion that violent portrayal has never been subject to government regulation.

While the Entertainment Merchants’ victory to protect offensive speech under the cloak of free speech is a win for liberty, all parents should take heed of the warnings inherent in the defeated California law. The regulation had attempted to define violent games as those “in which the range of options available to a player included killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being,” and as such were “patently offensive, appealed to minors’ deviant or morbid interests” and were deficient in “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

In his dissent Justice Stephen Breyer agreed with California’s concerns over the M-Rated games. He said that the act did withstand application of the First Amendment, and he looked to studies that showed that the games were associated with aggressive behavior. “Unlike the majority,” Justice Breyer wrote, “I would find sufficient grounds in these studies and expert opinions for this court to defer to an elected legislature’s conclusion that the video games in question are particularly likely to harm children.”

A 2007 government-sponsored study comparing rates of problem behaviors in youth who play M-rated games and those who do not, revealed how destructive they are. Mature-rated video game play was common among young adolescents; 68% of boys and 29% of girls had at least one M-rated title among five games they played "a lot" during the previous six months. These boys were almost twice as likely to show aggression, bully, damage property just for fun, steel from a store, get suspended from school, or skip class without excuse. Furthermore these boys were three times as apt to get into trouble with the police concluded the study by Lawrence Kutner, PhD and Cheryl Olsen, ScD in their original research funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice to the Center for Mental Health and Media.

Even more disturbing in the Kutner and Olsen study were the additional findings that among girls, the dangers were three to four times higher for those who played violent games in contrast with those who played other games. Physical violence, delinquent behavior, and school problems increased with the use of this virtual vice.

The revenue of the video gaming industry worldwide is greater than that of the music, movie, and DVD industries combined; this is therefore not an inconsequential pastime for many children. The Kutner and Olsen study should alert parents to the potential degradation of children’s minds, bodies, and souls courtesy of violent video game use. With these M-rated games youth are not learning a valuable skill, expanding their intellect, getting physical exercise, or engaging in virtuous pursuits to strengthen their spirit.

While there exists a difference between a vice, which is a habit inclining one to sin, and the sin itself, which is an individual morally wrong act; parents must beware that violent video games greatly blur the line between vice and sin. To protect their children, parents must firewall violent video games.

-Kelly Kathryn Llobet is a writer living in Baltimore, a veteran Navy spouse and a proud mother of five.

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