Virtual Violence & Children

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
Image via Wikipedia

While there is more than enough real violence in the world, the Supreme Court of the United States is turning its attention to a law suit regarding California’s law that regulates the sale of violent video games to minors.

Being a gamer, I am well aware of the sort of extremely violent content of certain video games. I am also aware that games, like movies, come with a rating that makes it fairly clear as to what sort of content the game features. However, the age based rating system does not actually prevent younger people from buying the game. So, for example, a nine year old could walk into a game store and walk out with a video game rated for mature (17+) audiences and then spend the rest of the day killing virtual hookers and stealing virtual cars. Assuming, of course, that he was allowed to do so by his parent(s) or guardian. Not surprisingly, this possibility does raise some legitimate concerns.

The focal point of the conflict is between free expression and the notion that the state should protect children from possible harm.

On the side of freedom of expression, the concern is that imposing restrictions based on the content of video games would be a form a state censorship and thus an imposition on the legitimate rights of game makers and their customers. Since there are very good arguments for freedom of expression and freedom of consumption (as usual, I defer to Mill here), the case against restricting the sale of violent video games to minors seems to be rather strong.

Of course, those who favor such restrictions can also make a strong case. After all, there are legitimate concerns that violent video games can influence the behavior of children and have other negative consequences. Perhaps the strongest foundation for banning such sales is that children are generally regarded as lacking the same rights as adults when it comes to consuming potentially harmful products. To use some obvious examples, children cannot legally purchase tobacco, alcohol or pornography. If violent video games fall into the category of being harmful and suitable only for adults, the arguments against allowing children to buy smokes, booze and porn can thus be employed against violent video games. In general, a reasonable case can be made that children should be subject to more restrictions than adults-even Mill takes this view. At the very least, children are far less capable of making rational decisions and tend to be more vulnerable than adults (of course, adults can be irrational and vulnerable as well).

One obvious concern is that if censorship is permitted on the basis of violence (something Plato would agree with) then this opens the door to more restrictions. For example, I am looking at the warning label on Wrath of the Lich King and it warns me that in addition to blood and gore the game features suggestive themes and the use of alcohol. Perhaps the next step will be to limit games that have such content. Then the next step might be to restrict movies or even books that mention such things. This is not, of course, a slippery slope argument. Rather, it is a matter of precedent: if the sale of video games can be restricted based on content, then this would seem to extend logically to other media, such as books.

Of course, video games do differ from other media in that they are interactive and this might entail that they have a stronger influence on children. So, for example, being the one to virtually run over hookers in a stolen  car would have more impact than merely reading about a person running over hookers. Or seeing a story on the news about people being killed for real. Or living in a violent world. This interactivity might provide the basis for a relevant difference argument and a way to prevent (if desired) a slide from video games to other media (such as books).

Another avenue that the video game censors have gone down is that of pornography. As noted above, minors cannot legally buy porn. If it is right to ban the sale of porn to kids, then the arguments for this can probably be modified to argue against allowing kids to buy violent video games. Not surprisingly, Plato argues for banning material relating to both violence and lust. His argument, oversimplified a bit, is based on the corrupting influences of such material. Of course, Plato argued for a comprehensive ban and not just a restriction on selling to minors. This does lead to the obvious question: if something is too harmful to sell to children, then might it not be too harmful for adults as well? Of course, the usual counters are that adults should have the liberty to harm themselves (as per Mill) and that adults are better able to resist the nefarious influence of such things (or that it is okay for adults because they are adults).

I am somewhat divided on this issue. On the one hand, I am for freedom of expression and consumption. Hence, my general principle is to oppose such censorship/restriction on the basis of liberty (availing myself of Mill’s arguments). On the other hand, having played video games such as the  Grand Theft Auto games I am aware that some games feature content that strikes  me as inappropriate for kids. For example, a friend once asked me if she should get Grand Theft Auto III for her son. Without hesitation,  I said “no.” My reasoning was that a young kid lacks the intellectual and emotional development needed to confront such violent and sexual content. I did see the irony in this: a person should be mature before playing what might seem like a morally immature game. However, I believe that I gave the right advice and would follow the same approach if I had kids of my own. Not surprisingly, things change a bit when one switches from rights in the abstract to what, for example, your own child will be playing.

There is, however, still the question of what the state should do. After all, there is a distinction between what I would suggest to my friends who have kids and what I would want to be a matter of law. For example, I think that kids should not eat junk food all the time, but I would be against a law banning the sale of junk food to kids. Rather, this is something that the parents (or guardians) should handle. While junk food is not healthy, the danger it poses is not so immediate that the compulsive power of the state is required. Rather, this seems best suited for parental control. In short, the burden of proof rests on those who would extend the power of the state.

In the case of video games, I take a similar view. While I do recognize that video games can (like junk food) things that are not so good, they do not seem to present a clear an immediate health threat that requires the imposition of the compulsive power of the state. Rather, this is a matter that seems to be more suited for parental control.

It might be replied that some children do not have adequate supervision and hence might just buy violent video games and play them. However, I am inclined to be more concerned that the children lack such supervision than with them playing a violent video game. In fact, if that is the worst they do, then things could be far worse.

It might also be argued that children would simply buy such games and play them without their parents being aware of it. Hence, making the sale of such video games illegal would provide an extra barrier between the kids and the content of the games. While this does have some appeal, kids can easily bypass this. After all, if they have their own money to buy video games, they can buy them online or get someone else to buy them. As such, the protection value of such a ban would seem to be rather minimal if the parents are, in effect, unable to supervise their children.

As such, I hold that the sale of such video games should not be restricted by law. However, I do think that making the nature of the content clear so that parents (and others) can make informed choices is a good idea. I also hold that parents should male responsible choices about what games their kids play. Of course, what counts as a responsible choice is a matter for another time.

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  1. I agree with you that the sale of such video games should not be restricted by law (nor should that of pornography.)

    At least where I live, children
    easily buy the games in pirate editions or sell or lend them to one another. Making them illegal only foments a black market and petty criminality.

    My parents prohibited lots of things as inappropiate to my age
    (that was long before video games), and through friends, I
    saw all the stuff that I wasn’t supposed to see. I let my children read the books and play the games and see the porn that they wanted to see. All of us grew up to be normal and clever enough to avoid jail and the psycho wards.

    My son, one of the most gentle human beings whom I’ve known, played Grand Theft Auto all day long. I’ve never played it, but it seems that it takes more than playing Grand Theft Auto at age 13 or 14 to turn a boy into
    a psycho killer.

    I don’t claim to know what causes violence and criminality in children or in adults. Undoubtedly, there are many factors. As Auden says, those to whom evil are done, do evil in return.

  2. People today have more access to violent media than ever before, mostly due to the fact that there’s just a lot more of it available to any given person. Also, the probability of any one individual getting personally harmed through violence is lower than at any time in recorded history. People, in general, see, read, hear, and interact with virtual violence more than ever, and interact with real, actual violence, less than ever before. I don’t think legislation against these types of media are what’s saving us.

  3. I am reluctant to comment here as I have never played video games so I am wide open to the accusation of not knowing what I am talking about. However what little I do know of them I find it difficult to understand why people would want to spend hours upon end living in a world of fantasy saturating their minds with grotesque material. I do appreciate there is in many such games a mental challenge to solve something which can be satisfying, but why does it have to be played in a place where the basest of human instincts prevail in a sink hole of iniquity?
    What really does concern me here is reports from some gamers who claim that after about six hours or more constant play they find a temporary problem in adjusting to the world of reality as opposed to the world of fantasy in which they have recently dwelt. Unlike watching a horror film or one showing the worst of human behaviour, a gamer actually becomes a member of the scenario. It is here that I suspect a danger to children or young people may reside as they are very suggestible, hence the brutality we see in some children, who seem to have murder in their hearts.
    We live in such a fantastically interesting world of Art, Literature, Science, Sport surely all that contains sufficient interest to last a lifetime. Yes there is certainly violence sex and blood in good literature but it is not fantastically grotesque just for the sake of that alone, and we read about it not participate in it. The same goes for pornography. I have seen some which on the one hand is tastefully and charmingly done, and on the other hand some which is revoltingly sickening.
    I am not keen on banning things like books etc on account they may be harmful, say, Lady Chatterley or Fanny Hill. The first was for me a good novel, the second amusing. Were I continually seeking such material however, I think there might be cause for worry. It is so difficult to decide at times what will definitely corrupt and whom it will corrupt. Not so the case with say, Paedophilia that cannot be permitted sufficient data exists to prove its corrupting and harmful nature.
    What Amos has written here is interesting and I suggest the reason why his children have come to no harm is most likely due to the fact that he was a good parent whose viewpoints they respected. This leads me to wonder if it is all down to the parents. With decent parenting we should not need banns on many things. Speak to your children openly and truthfully. I agree with Auden “those to whom evil are done, do evil in return”. Additionally Oscar Wilde I think made a valid point when he stated “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That’s all.”

  4. Hello Don:

    First of all, thanks for the compliments.

    We seem to have read the same “hot” books when we were young. I’ll add The Tropic of Cancer and The Story of O to your list.

    Being a good parent is not something special: it involves treating another human being with respect, concern and knowledge of whom he or she is. We should treat everyone with respect, concern and knowledge of whom he or she is, insofar as we can and insofar as others let us treat them well.

    As to computer games, I now live with a de facto step-child, who
    has some unspecified problems (those professionals supposedly skilled in diagnosing such problems tend not to be very insightful) in relating to others and to the world in general. He spends lots and lots of time with the computer, and I think his mastery of computer games first of all allows him to sense that he masters something (since his feedback from the outsight world is generally negative) and second, helps him develop some cognitive skills that given his problems in school and his school’s problems with him, he will not develop in a formal classroom setting.

    If someone spends hours and hours with computer games, it probably means that that person or child has problems with the world around him or her. It would be great if the world were more open to accepting people with problems, but since the world is what it is, maybe it’s a godsend that some people can find a refuge in computer games or in philosophy blogs.

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