It was the mid- nineties; I was a panelist at a State University of New York, Old Westbury conference, speaking on research on the effects of violent entertainment on children. Afterwards, at lunch, I sat with a professor and an administrator at the university. They spent the hour telling me how stressed they and their wives were from their efforts to keep their sons away from extremely violent entertainment, especially the recent, enormously popular videogame Doom. The extreme violence in earlier games was bad enough, but Doom introduced first person shooting -- their sons directly doing the virtual killing was too much. They, like so many parents who spoke to me after lectures, were trying to cope with the fact that their efforts to protect their sons from the marketing of a culture of violence, led to their boys being ostracized, called nerds or geeks. Peer pressure was intense and painful; nagging constant. Parents were torn. When we said good bye, one of the men sheepishly told me," I must confess, my wife and I broke down; a few days ago we got him Doom."
If so many upper middle class two parent families couldn't handle it, how could single parents, or families where parents worked two or three jobs? I began to experience the industry's mantra, "it's up to the parents to decide what their children should watch or play," as bordering on sadism. Since the mid-nineties, first person shooter games have become standard, and games have become even more violent.
The argument that there's always been violent entertainment from Shakespeare plays to Grimm fairytales fails to recognize that we are no longer dealing with individual writers exercising their art, being read or heard occasionally. Billion dollar video game industries now surround children with entertainment which permits them to shoot, torture, decapitate, dismember, and sexually assault people. Concern is not limited to the United States, European parliament member Sonia Alfano, whose Sicilian journalist father was murdered by the Mafia , recently asked the European Commission to consider banning video games that trivialize violence and murder. We Americans have even more to fear from this trivialization -- unlike Western European countries where gun sales are highly regulated and homicide rates much lower, we live in a country where a deeply emotionally disturbed person can walk into a gun store in Tucson, purchase a semi-automatic pistol, and use it to kill 6 people and injure 14.
Agreement among researchers that violent video games are one of the variables encouraging violent behavior, is about as universal as scientists 'agreement that smokers are at higher risk of lung cancer, or that global warming is real -- and human activities play a role. The naysayers represent a tiny minority.
This does not prevent the industry from denying the evidence, and pretending that researchers claim a universal, direct causal link between violent games and violent behavior. No researcher has ever made such an absurd claim. In their 2007 book, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents, which provides an overview of research on the topic, Iowa State psychology professor Craig A. Anderson and co-authors, explain that "the probabilistic nature of modern science is largely due to the fact that multiple causal factors are involved in most medical, psychological, and behavioral phenomena." Violent video games represent one variable that interacts with socioeconomic-cultural conditions and other variables such as learning disability, mild mental disability, or emotional disturbance, to raise the probability of violent behavior -- especially in males.
In the late 1980's, I was researching a book on decreasing violence in boys. To avoid making impossible recommendations with respect to violent entertainment, I interviewed four First Amendment experts including Stanford law professor Marc Franklin and then Cardozo Law School Dean Monroe Price. "Would laws to protect children from entertainment violence have a reasonable chance of passing Supreme Court muster?" I asked. All answered affirmatively. As long as the First Amendment rights of adults were protected, such laws seemed to be in keeping with obscenity and liquor laws to protect children.
In the case pertaining to California's right to regulate the sale of video games which include "killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being," now being heard by the Supreme Court, their opinion is supported so far by Justices Breyer, Roberts, and Alito.
Justice Breyer asks, "What common sense is there in having a... law that a State can forbid and says to the parent that the child... cannot go in and buy a picture of a naked woman, but the... child can go in and buy one of these video games... [of] gratuitous torture of children."
Unlike Justice Breyer , the other liberal Justices seem to remain within the tradition of opposing any laws to protect children, however remotely they could be interpreted as First Amendment infringement -- in the 1980's, warning labels on violent or sexually explicit CD's were considered a threat. (In fact warning labels whether on CD's or video games are of limited value since store owners suffer no financial consequences if they do not abide by them -- a recent study by the Parents TV Council reveals that many stores including Target, Kmart, Sears, and Best Buy branches sell M (mature) rated video games to children ages twelve to sixteen.)
Justice Sottomayor points out that there is no tradition of regulating violence, and asks "could you get rid of rap music?"
In fact, the California law doesn't get rid of anything. Parents are free to do as they wish. Justice Brenner understands this when he asks, "why isn't it common sense to say a State has the right to say, parent, if you want that for your 13-year-old, you go buy it yourself."
If as is likely, a vast majority of parents would not buy their children "x rated" video games, those who did buy them would be put on the defensive. The present situation would be reversed. Boys kept away from these video games would no longer be a persecuted minority. Their parents would give a sigh of relief.
As for regulating violence, while in Ginsberg vs. New York, (1968) the Supreme Court set a precedent by upholding the state's ban on selling "girlie" magazines to boys under 17, there has been no such precedent with respect to extreme violence. However, the Supreme Court decision in Prince v. Massachusetts (1944) asserted that, "basic in democracy, stand the interests of society to protect the welfare of children" and "it is in the interest of youth itself, and of the whole community, that children be both safeguarded from abuses and given opportunities for growth into free and independent well developed men and citizens."
Aren't the interests of children and the community served by a law that prohibits children buying video games that increase their risk of anti-social behavior -- from bullying to homicide? The California Psychiatric Association and the California Psychological Association think so -- they have filed amicus curiae briefs in support of this legislation which was authored by San Francisco Democratic State Senator Leland Yee, Ph.D. who is a child psychologist.
If there exists a real threat to our First Amendment rights, it lies in the inadequacy of anti-trust laws which permit an increasingly smaller number of corporations, in the hands of a wealthy few, to control a large percentage of the mass media, and exercise undue influence on the political process, not in regulations to protect our children from exploitation by corporations.