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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.