A Free Speech Challenge for Parents

Should a 13-year-old be able to purchase a school-shooting simulator without parents’ knowledge or consent?

The Supreme Court says that freedom of speech requires that 13-year-olds have that opportunity. In a 7-2 decision, the court struck down a California law barring the sale of graphically violent video games to people under 18.

I have not seen legal minds commenting on what seem (to me) to be obvious consequences of this decision. If the First Amendment requires that minors be able to purchase graphically violent video games, does this mean minors may attend R-rated movies without an adult or purchase pornography? We have longstanding traditions and laws which regulate the speech to which minors may be exposed without the consent of their parents.

The research on the effects of violent video games shows that parents and society have reason to be concerned. Today, we are not talking about the games from my youth like Space Invaders or games that involved a cartoon-like image of a person falling over. We are talking about games with graphic, movie-quality images of death and dismemberment. Unlike a movie, however, which is viewed passively, game players are actively causing the scenes which unfold before them.

Yes, video games are pretend. Of course, they are. Even young teenagers who play the games know they are pretend. Yet, even passively viewing pretend images affects the way people think. Television commercials are pretend. We all know they are pretend. The reason some of the most successful businesses in the world advertise—even paying over $2,000,000 for a 30-second Super Bowl spot—is not to generously provide free television for us; it is because they have data showing that advertising changes consumers’ attitudes and behavior. Active participation, like playing a video game, changes attitudes and behavior more efficiently than passively watching TV.

Will most kids who play games that simulate school shootings live out the roles they are playing? Will most kids who play Grand Theft Auto steal cars? No. Very few kids who play violent video games will perform those acts in real life. The changes most kids will experience as a result of playing violent video games are more subtle than mass murder, but are still quite measurable.

For example, greater exposure to violent media desensitizes people to the effects of violence and aggression. What would have been abhorrent, or should be, becomes not so bad or perhaps even funny. Violent video games cause users to think more violent thoughts. Typical behavioral effects from these changes in thinking might range from not being appropriately moved by images of real human suffering to being more argumentative and disrespectful.

Space does not allow for a full consideration of the effects of using violent video games. I spend an entire class period in my course on child development discussing violent media. Among the well-established effects is that users of violent media are more likely to believe that crime victims deserved their fate. In addition, users of violent media have a distorted view of the world, believing life to be significantly less safe than it is.

It is true that people who are prone to aggressiveness are more likely to use violent media. It is also true that people who use violent media become more aggressive. None of us want to believe that we will acquire a taste for the distasteful, but if we consume enough of what began as distasteful, it becomes satisfying.

Make no mistake about it; video games can be a great use of free time. Research shows that kids who play video games develop better spatial skills and hand-eye coordination. They are also just plain fun. Yet the benefits of video games do not require gruesome images.

We endure a lot of ugliness to protect our right to free speech. Like Justices Clarence Thomas and Steven Breyer, I do not believe that restricting the sale of violent video games to people 18 and older would have strained the First Amendment. With or without laws that require adult involvement for kids to have questionable material, parents must be parents. Laws are no substitute for parental monitoring. While I find the Court’s decision disappointing, it highlights the need for parents to be proactive and willing to make tough decisions.



Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and a researcher on Positive Youth Development with The Center for Vision & Values.

  • rtjl

    “Will most kids who play games that simulate school shootings live out the roles they are playing? Will most kids who play Grand Theft Auto steal cars?”

    No. They won’t. But kids who play these games will probably become more callous, insensitive, hostile, aggressive, self centered and generally difficult to live with than they would be if they didn’t play these games. These games may not produce more real life school shooters, but they certainly do not make for good character development.

    • Richard A

      “Will most kids who play games that simulate school shootings live out the roles they are playing? Will most kids who play Grand Theft Auto steal cars?”

      Yes. Some will. Obviously we can’t know who they are beforehand, but apart from training many of our children to endure a heightened level of callousness, some will be exposed to more violent temptations to which they will succumb.

  • Will B

    “If the First Amendment requires that minors be able to purchase graphically violent video games, does this mean minors may attend R-rated movies without an adult or purchase pornography?”

    Justice Scalia’s majority opinion explains that First Amendment jurisprudence has always permitted an exception for obscenity, but that this included sexual obscenity and was never extended to violence. Presumably, this is why minors can be restricted from pornography. R-rated movies is another question. Certainly some of these movies are rated R for sexual content, but I’m sure plenty of them have this rating based on violent content alone.

  • Jason Fairfield

    I think the question is the context in which that violence is displayed.

    IMHO, violence like in the GTA games is not something I would play or allow any children I might have to play, because they emphasize and reward the criminality of it. While games that are more neutral (like the Fallout Series or even another of the GTA devs games Red Dead Redemption) where one can choose to do good or ill. Or games that are either of a historical context (such as WWII games) or where you are fighting for a just cause (like Half Life).

    Let me use the example of Fallout 3. Fallout 3 is a post apocalyptic game set in the Washington DC area. It is a very violent game, heads can and do explode (though I think there is a setting to turn the more extreme violence scenes out) The player is a child who grew up in a shelter named Vault 101 in search of his father, and in the process becomes involved with the various peoples and issues that are befalling the area, and he can choose to either save the area (by means of creating a source of pure non contaiminated water) or exterminate it (by poisoning the purifier of said water). It’s a deep game with a lot of exploration with satisfying combat and a good story. It’s definitely for mature audiences, and I would not let any child of mine under 15 play it unless he was very mature about it.

    Think of the theme, it’s essentially a sim of a person in a very hostile environment with very hostile inhabitants (and good inhabitants too). It would be by definition, a very dangerous life, but the violence can serve a purpose, in self defence and justice. Or you can choose to be a bad guy, nuke a town or two, and attack good people. But the key is one has a choice. That is ultimately determines the worth of a game.

    Now, there is another edge of the coin, games like GTA encourage and reward criminality with no prospect (from what I know of the games) to turn to the other side in the story mode, so those games I would under no circumstances allow a child of mine to play.

    I would think, that similiar questions consider the worth of movies that have a lot of violence yet have redeeming value, such as the passion of the Christ, Braveheart, and Saving Private Ryan among others. Violent images does not necessarily make a artistic project unworthy.

    IIRC correctly, was this proposed ban be in effect even if it was a parent purchasing for a child, or was this an absolute, under no circumstances. Either way, I believe if passed it would have limited the creative freedom of the game industry.

    What the industry does with that freedom, well, it is on their consciences, but they should have the freedom.

  • Pete

    On the subject of video games, the iPad/iPhone and XBOX360 shooter DEATHSMILES uses images of St Peter’s Basilica as background for the end stage demon’s castle. I suspect the Japanese company behind this did not intend to disrespect Christianity but one never knows.

  • Peter Freeman

    While I certainly understand some of the alarm in this piece, I wonder how practical its fears are.
    First, what constitutes “graphic violence” in video games is a constantly sliding scale. What looks hardcore and striking now will look like a bad cartoon in a few years. Does anyone really think the original Mortal Kombat is still “graphic violence?”
    Second, the most cutting edge–and thereby most graphic–games are never cheap.
    I’d be more worried about parents who let their kids have the disposable income to drop $400 on the latest game system and $60 on the latest game.
    One would think that by the time a kid can afford an XBOX360, he would already be able to see R-rated movies anyway.