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Video Games Are Protected Free Speech

According to gamesindustry.biz, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that video games are protected free speech (an account with gamesindustry.biz is required to view the full story–I highly recommend it as this is a great resource).

The article, written by Rachel Webber, reports that:

The Justices today voted 7-2 in favour of the Entertainment Merchant’s Association, and against reinstating the 2005 law that banned the sale of violent video games to minors, introduced labelling laws for packaging and saw retailers facing fines of up to $1000 for failing to follow the regulations.

I’m a firm believer in the freedom of speech, and have always contended that video games should be afforded the same rights that are given to movies, television, books, and other forms of communication. The crusade against video games by special interests and the government (and pearl-clutching “will somebody think of the children” worried-mother stereotypes) reminds me a lot of the scaremongering in the comic book industry leading up to Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book “Seduction of the Innocent” and the creation of the Comics Code Authority. That whole thing turned out great, huh?

The PDF of the document with the majority opinion can be found here. It’s a long read, with a page count of ninety-two. Of interest is the dissenting opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas (whose opinion I don’t hold in high regard, what with the news of his recent ethical troubles). He writes:

The practices and beliefs of the founding generation establish that “the freedom of speech,” as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech) without going through the minors’ parents or guardians.

I’m no constitutional lawyer, but I don’t agree with this sentiment. I think Justice Thomas is missing the larger picture. The concurring majority does mention that the California law did seek to address a valid social concern, that being the kinds of materials that young, impressionable people have access to (and this is something that I agree with). The pertinent issue is that the definitions of what is considered to be objectionable material are subjective and change with time (I’m reminded of Cole Porter’s song “Anything Goes“). More to the point, I really don’t believe it’s up to the state to do the work of parents and monitoring what their children watch or consume.

Of course, there has been dissent. Game Informer reports that the Parents Television Council took issue with the ruling. With their usual rhetorical flourish, Matt Bertz writes that:

A conservative advocacy group that specializes in filing content complaints to the FCC isn’t a big fan of the Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association decision.

A conservative activist group with a chip on its shoulder and a desire for control? Say it ain’t so! It is, of course, true. Their statement, as expected, is reminiscent of the aforementioned crusade against comic books. It reads,

Countless independent studies confirm what most parents instinctively know to be true: repeated exposure to violent video games has a harmful and long-term effect on children.

Of course, they don’t cite any of the studies. I’m sure I’m not alone when I view such claims by the Parents Television Council with a healthy bit of skepticism. In fact, a casual perusal of readily available literature hints that there are several methodological issues in most of the studies, such as only counting for short-term aggression bias and, to be frank, stupid research methods.

I am not denying that violent video games impact children. Repeated and excessive exposure to violent media can induce desensitization to the violence. This article, which was in part published by Brad J. Bushman, a professor of Communication Studies, and in particular Media Effects, from the University of Michigan who I have had the honor of learning from, does lend credence to the impact of violence on aggression. I will note, however, that such research is often narrowly focused and inconclusive.

Never mind my own anecdotal evidence about the long-term effects of violence and video-games being negligible. PBS.org has an article entitled “The Video Game Revolution: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked” by Henry Jenkins. The article discusses the issues most important to this case and the non-violent crusaders. Of particular note is the following:

This research includes some 300 studies of media violence. But most of those studies are inconclusive and many have been criticized on methodological grounds. In these studies, media images are removed from any narrative context. Subjects are asked to engage with content that they would not normally consume and may not understand. Finally, the laboratory context is radically different from the environments where games would normally be played. Most studies found a correlation, not a causal relationship, which means the research could simply show that aggressive people like aggressive entertainment.

This is really at the heart of the inconclusiveness of the Media Effects studies on violence and any form of media. I could throw out complicated concepts like Confirmation Bias, Correlation and Causation, or even Confounding Variables. The simplest way to say it is that these studies often don’t prove that playing violent video games causes long-term violent tendencies (and they often have difficulty controlling for outside influences and predisposition of the test subjects). Sometimes researchers will see this inconclusive data and read their own conclusions into it based on their presupposed ideas, which is confirmation bias. In the end, you have to read these studies with skepticism and careful, studied knowledge of the concepts being discussed. There’s a very high chance you’ll spot numerous problems with them.

The article by Jenkins also notes, importantly, the difference between violent play and actual aggression in a section about desensitization, which is a direct rebuke to Professor Bushman’s article.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has a document which lists tips for parents for handling violent media, particularly video games, and children. When it comes down to it, it’s up to parents to provide context and boundaries for their children’s consumption of any violent media. Children are wily and clever little rapscallions, and to be honest it’s going to be extremely unlikely a parent will be able to control all of their access to violent media. I believe that a parent should guide a child, and teach them context for the violence. Most children will, I believe, learn this themselves as they gain life experience. I think that our culture has a complex in which they coddle and overprotect children, which only harms them more. Allow children to thrive in the world without pearl-clutching mothers falling into a fainting couch every time someone says “boobs” on the teevee.

It’s good for them.

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  1. July 1, 2011 at 1:41 PM

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