Will the Supreme Court limit the sale of violent video games to children?

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Nov. 1 2010 3:50 PM

Grand Theft First Amendment

Will the Supreme Court limit the sale of violent video games to children?

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Are violent video games harmful enough that kids need the government's protection from them? That's the question at the heart of Tuesday's Supreme Court argument in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, which pits the state of California against the group that represents video game manufacturers. California wants to ban the sale or rental of violent video games to kids under the age of 18. The state's definition of violent is fairly precise—these are games in which players kill, maim, dismember, or sexually assault a human avatar. The trickier issue is, how bad is it for kids to spew this kind of blood and gore across the screen?

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

It's a question over which psychologists and judges have split. The position of the medical establishment, represented by the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, is that "scientific research on violent video games clearly shows that such games are causally related to later aggressive behavior in children and adolescents." (See the appendix to this brief.) As Amanda Schaffer explained in Slate, three kinds of studies link violent video games to childhood aggression. Studies that track kids over short and long periods of time, and those that randomly assign kids to play violent and nonviolent games all point to more aggressive behavior and less helpfulness. A 2010 meta-analysis of more than 130 studies, by a group of authors including Anderson, who is a psychology professor at Iowa State, found that overall, the research shows that violent games increase the risk that kids will act out aggressively in real life situations over time.

Still, the studies can't prove for sure that violent video games make kids more aggressive. Maybe the kids who are more aggressive are drawn more to these games. And maybe the lab-based experiments in which kids blast each other don't have much to do with real-world fighting. The longitudinal results are probably the most convincing: Whatever their reasons for playing violent games, the kids who were exposed to more of them acted out more over the course of a year. In one study of 430 third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders, published in 2007 by psychologists Craig Anderson, Douglas Gentile, and Katherine Buckley, kids who played violent video games more often  "changed over the school year to become more verbally aggressive, more physically aggressive," and less helpful to others. Perhaps this makes intuitive sense: The games desensitize kids to one kind of human suffering, and that makes them think less about inflicting another kind.

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There's another more skeptical school of thought, however. What if kids actually see video games as a vehicle for venting or pure fantasy – meaning, effectively, as a substitute for real world aggression and violence? In a 2009 study that looked at different causes of youth aggression, Christopher Ferguson, Claudia San Miguel, and Richard Hartley found that the strongest predictors of youth violence (as opposed to the more amorphous idea of aggression) were depression and hanging out with delinquent peers. In this study, video game violence didn't predict violent behavior—with the exception of bullying, for which there was a slight effect. Ferguson, a psychology professor at Texas A&M, says that Anderson's studies don't measure clinical or pathological aggression, so the increase they find isn't necessarily harmful. "Aggression isn't bad except in high amounts," he says.

When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit considered the gaming industry's challenge to California's ban, the court sided with the skeptics, dismissing much of the literature. Why did the court read the research differently than the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics? One reason is the narrow way in which the case was framed. When the California assembly passed the ban, it gave two reasons: "preventing violent, aggressive, and antisocial behavior" and "preventing psychological or neurological harm to minors who play violent video games." But by focusing entirely on the well-being of the kids playing the games, the state oddly gave up on the justification of how those kids are aggressive toward other people. And in fact the 9th Circuit discounted some of the research because the findings relate "to the player's violent or aggressive behavior toward others" but not to psychological or neurological harm to the player himself.