Freedom of speech extends to video games

Blair Hanley Frank

Saying that video games are controversial is a rather serious understatement. State governments all over our country have tried to ban the sale of “violent” games to minors for quite some time. For the most part, the proposed laws have all been struck down in court. Until recently, the Supreme Court has refused to hear any of the cases on such bans regarding violent video games with the exception of one case from California.

So, why now, and why California? Helen Knowles, a visiting professor of politics, believes that The Supreme Court tends to let legal sentiment percolate, and then choose one case that it feels it can effectively rule on. In essence, the court’s decision to hear the California case is due to the fact that they feel this case has provided them a very good opportunity to rule not only on California’s law, but also others like it.

California’s law is also slightly different than its predecessors from other states. Whereas other laws relied on obscenity statues, California decided to fashion its law around studies linking playing violent video games and increased aggression in children. Gamers have often dismissed such studies as correlative, which is to say that they don’t provide sufficient evidence that video games directly cause violent behavior. Brooke Vick, assistant professor of psychology and Whitman’s resident social psychology expert, disagrees with this reasoning since, according to her, there’s no question in the literature about whether media violence causes aggression to increase or not.

It would seem, then, that scientifically speaking, California has a leg to stand on. But what about when it comes to the First Amendment? Professor Knowles doesn’t think the Supreme Court will reverse the ruling against California because she believes the law is just so overly broad that it seems unlikely the court will let it stand. I hope she’s right.

Video games are still an emerging medium for artistic expression, and their full potential has yet to be realized. Of course, that hasn’t stopped games like “Bioshock,” “Mass Effect” and “Heavy Rain” from pushing the envelope. Of course, that’s not an exhaustive list of artistic video games, but it’s a start. The one thing all of these games have in common is their “mature” rating. In the video game industry, getting a “M” stuck on your box is like a “R” rating at the movie theater. Nobody under 17 can purchase a game that’s been rated mature due to industry practices. I still get carded at Gamestop when I go to purchase M-rated games, and that’s the way it should be.

I am a firm believer in children of a certain age being restricted in their buying, viewing and playing habits when it comes to certain media. I don’t care how mature you think your 12- or 13-year-old is. They shouldn’t be playing “Grand Theft Auto” or “Modern Warfare.” But here’s the fundamental problem of the California law: banning the sale of violent video games to minors (where violence is defined as certain acts like shooting or dismembering a human avatar) isn’t the way to go. There are a few reasons why.

The first is that minors often aren’t the ones buying the video games for themselves. Timmy is not tottering off to Walmart or EB Games with 60 dollars in his pocket to buy “Medal of Honor.” His parents are doing it for him. The key thing to realize here is that the video game industry makes it abundantly clear what games they think are appropriate for children. It’s right there on the box. People just need to learn to listen.

Second, the banning of violent video games will probably have a chilling effect on what games get made. Big retailers won’t want to deal with all of the legal liabilities that come with selling games that can carry huge penalties if sold to the wrong people. For better or worse, the video game industry goes where the money is. If it’s not possible to sell certain games through traditionally profitable retail channels, then developers won’t get paid to make those games. It’s that simple.

One of the great things about the interactive nature of games is that it’s possible to communicate with the player on his or her own level, in ways that aren’t available to traditional media like books and film. I’ve had philosophical epiphanies playing well-crafted games, and that, in my opinion, is the way it should be. Should young kids be allowed to play violent video games that are inappropriate for them? No. But government regulation isn’t the way to go either. Games should be rated by people who understand them, not some bureaucratic body made up of people who haven’t played video games enough to understand why they’re important and valuable.