Violent Video Games (Again)

I have been using my budget-cut based summer break from teaching to do various home improvements. The point of mentioning this is that I have been alternating between baking in the Florida sun and being exposed to “second hand paint fumes” (as opposed to directly huffing the stuff) as such, my writing might be a bit off. I have checked for any obvious weirdness (well, weirdness beyond the usual sort), but I apologize in advance for any heat/paint induced lapses in logic. I blame the flying frogs that seem to be infesting my house now. In any case, down to business.

The supreme court recently ruled that California’s law banning the sale of  video games to minors that “depict serious injury to human beings in a manner that is especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.” The ruling was, of course, based on the first amendment.

Being both a gamer and an ethicist, I have thought (and written) a fair amount about the banning video games. On the one hand, a very reasonable case can be made for placing age based restrictions on video games. While studies of the impact of virtual violence on children are hardly conclusive, it seems reasonable to accept that exposure to virtual violence can have an impact on how the child thinks. As Aristotle has argued, people become habituated by what they do. Children are, of course, even more likely to be influenced. They are more receptive than adults and tend to lack the cognitive resources that adults are supposed to possess. As such, it seems reasonable to keep young children away from violence-even the virtual sort.

On the other hand, there are reasonable grounds for rejecting such bans. First, there are reasons for doubting that such games have a significant impact on children. The psychological studies are open to question and, of course, humans seem to be naturally prone to violence ( the stock “we like violent games because we are violent, we are not violent because of the games” argument). When I was a kid, long before violent video games, we spent a lot of time playing war. While the effects were not very special (cap guns), we certainly did act out killing each other. When violent video games came along, they simply allowed me to do what I had done as a kid (play at killing) only with ever better graphics and effects). As such, banning violent video games to protect children from the influence of violence seems like something that simply will not work, thus making such a law unnecessary.

Second, there is the matter of freedom of expression and consumption. While minors do have a reduced right of freedom of consumption (they cannot but alcohol, tobacco, guns or porn), imposing on their freedom only seems justified when it protects them from a significant harm in cases in which they lack the judgment to (in theory at least) make an informed choice. Even if violent video games have a harmful impact, it can be contended that the harm is not on par with that of adult vices such as alcohol or tobacco but rather on par with junk food. So, just as it is sensible to think that children should not eat junk food, yet also think there should not be laws banning children from buying candy bards, it seems sensible to think that although young kids should not buy violent video games, there should not be laws against doing so.

Third, there is the matter of what is fit for the state to control and what is fit for parents to control. There are, obviously enough, matters that should be handled by the state and those that should remain a matter of parental choice.  Alcohol, guns and tobacco are so dangerous that it seems reasonable that the state has a interest in keeping children away from these things by force of law. There is also a category of things were the state should aid parents in making choices, such as diet and exercise, but where the state should not intervene except in extreme cases. As noted above, I am inclined to put violent video games in the category of junk food. As such, parents should be informed about what the games contain (which is already done by the rating system) and the choice of whether or not their children play the games or not should be up to them. Naturally, children who lack parents or whose parents are dangerously incompetent will fall under the domain of the state, but these would be relatively rare cases.

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  1. Benjamin S Nelson

    It’s an interesting question. But in the absence of reliable studies that actually give us some reason to be confident that video games produce an (anti-social) cathectic effect instead of a cathartic one, it is hard to have a philosophical discussion even in the abstract. Social scientists might eventually be in a position to know the answer. But until we can point to the data, we sure aren’t.

    I think we can speak with some confidence about the loose effects of a culture upon the conduct of persons. But a culture, as a wider pattern, exerts its influence on individuals precisely because it socializes people from all kinds of different directions. So we need to be talking about more than just video games.

  2. Dennis Sceviour

    As children as young as five or six years old, we played Rebs and Yanks. In England, I think the game is called Cavaliers and Roundheads. Probably the most violent video I remember watching was called The Roadrunner Show, with Wiley E. Coyote getting mashed in almost every frame. There is little evidence of any correlation between video violence and real violence. It makes sense that labelled information about the hazards of video content should be sufficient to advise most viewers of any age as to the responsibility they have of interpreting the content.

    I will have to disconnect from my IP in next few days. If all goes well, I will be back on line again shortly. However, the unknown can happen, so let me say it has been interesting. Thank you to all, and especially to Don Bird for the approximately 80 pages of dialogue we have contributed to TPM blog over the last year. I have introduced several radical theories on evolution, causation, Plato and parrots. Unfortunately, yet to come were new theories on economics, population theory and professional ethics. Maybe next time.

  3. If the graphics of video games have improved to a level that it looks like real people, real situations and real wounds then the game sticks to mind and changes it (like a carcinogenic material). By wounding people (if that is the game) and by constantly seeing wounded people, one grows numbness to the human element of not wounding others (if we call that our history of growing into civilization). I feel such video games have very little and cheap entertainment value.

  4. Mike;
    In my opinion, there is a connection between this blog and your previous blog media bias. I believe we are addressing activities/behaviors that follow a similar pattern, but surprisingly, they appear to be treated by society in very different manner. The proposed pattern is: a person (adult/minor) does (consumes) something (drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, junk food, junk news, movies, pornography, violence, extreme graphic video games, etc) that is/could be detrimental to himself and others (society), and this consumption is supported by an economic activity (drug dealers, tobacco company, junk food industry, video game industry, news industry, etc). One common parameter is probably addiction; these activities are or have the potential for addiction, and their detrimental effects, in general terms, depend on quantity. When I compare some of the activities in the list, sometimes is difficult to make clear distinctions and how we should deal with them. Why pornography is treated differently that graphic violence? Why tobacco, alcohol and drugs (this could be a very broad category) are treated so differently? Why junk food that causes obesity and other diseases (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, many more) is treated differently than smoking (proven and clear cause of cancer)? Why minors are banned for some activities (pornography, certain movies) but not others (junk food and graphic video violence?
    I just cannot find a good rationale; only historical, cultural and economic perspectives in each of these activities but not a clear rationale from the balance of individual rights and others rights. Perhaps philosophers can help.

  5. s. wallerstein

    I’ve even read the strange, but possibly accurate, theory that the lowered levels of violent crime today are the result of kids playing violent video games.

    That is, instead of hanging out on the corner waiting for someone to beat up, kids with violent tendencies stay inside and beat up
    virtual enemies.

  6. s. wallerstein

    the article which mentions the hypothesis that violent video games contribute to lowering crime rate.

  7. Talking Philosophy | Violent Video Games (Again) | Pace Games - pingback on June 28, 2011 at 11:10 am
  8. s.wallerstein

    The article shows data about crime rate reduction in the USA, and offers 10 potential explanations. I would qualify them more as speculations and some of them, in my opinion, far fetched. The problem with this article is that the author attempts to qualify the potential causes but does a poor job at it. There could be 10, 100 speculations; it is easy for ourselves to force an explation than to simply say I do not know.
    Following this reasoning, what is the evidence that sex scenes are bad for kids under certain age? How does this evidence compare to the effect of violence in kids of the same age? I do not know the answer to the questions, but my wild assumption/speculation is that there is not strong evidence for both. why do we treat them differently?
    Thank you for the article; it is good news that crime rates are going down; perhaps after all we are becoming more civilized.

  9. Keenan Parsons

    “Third, there is the matter of what is fit for the state to control and what is fit for parents to control.”

    Nothing in the california law would have prevented parents from buying the violent video games for their kids.

  10. Dennis,

    I agree: warning labels should suffice. Good luck with getting connected again.

  11. Sundar,

    Interesting point. As the games get more real, it is reasonable to infer they would have a greater impact. Seeing realistic body parts blasted around (such as in Borderlands) and watching blocks of pixels explode (old Atari)are two rather different experiences.

  12. Jmiret,

    Those are good questions. I have also wondered at the lack of consistency in how things are treated. As you point out, certain dangerous thing are tolerated while comparable dangers are outlawed. One likely factor, as you indicate, is the role of established industry in determining the laws. Another likely factor is how people perceive things in terms of threat assessment. For example, we Americans are often obsessed with terror and are willing to spend billions and allow various rights to be infringed in the name of fighting its threat. However, the same Americans who accept all this often cry out against spending money on health care and regard being required to buy health insurance as a gross violation of their rights. The gist is that people seem to be ruled by emotions rather than by a logical assessment of the situations.

  13. S.wallerstein,

    That does have some intuitive appeal. After all, the games can vent frustration and they also siphon off a lot of time.

  14. Keenan,

    True. But the point I was addressing was concerned with whether the parent or the state is the appropriate banning authority. That is, if little Sally wants to buy Big Gun Bloody Slaughterfest IV should the state or her mom be the one to have the power to decide whether she should be able to do so or not. I’m inclined to think that this should be left up to the parents, mainly because the alleged harms of video games do not seem to warrant state intrusion. I am, however, fine with a rating system.

  15. ann on a mouse

    I think the paint fumes dissolved a bit here:
    “The supreme court recently ruled that California’s law banning the sale of video games to minors that “depict serious injury to human beings in a manner that is especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.” The ruling was, of course, based on the first amendment.”

  16. “The gist is that people seem to be ruled by emotions rather than by a logical assessment of the situations.”

    I agree with this statement, but it seems to be more complicated than that. Everything depends on the meaning of “emotions” what in this context I can interpret as “gut feelings”. I have read several books that summary recent findings of cognitive psychology for the un initiated. They point to 2 systems of processing information. One very fast and inaccurate responsible for the “gut feeling”, and one more slow and accurate “reason”. The rules that govern them are fascinating and can explain many un-explained information. I believe that groups of people tend to process events via a “gut feeling” process based on metaphors and strong unchallenged beliefs (myths?). For example; alcohol has been associated with fun, partying since the greeks; tobacco with being powerful, adventurous, but there is no potent association in the western culture for opium. We can do a similar analysis for sex and violence. The challenge we have is to asses these events differently, based on carefull and as objective as possible on evidence.
    For example what is the evidence that participating in video games that “depict serious injury to human beings in a manner that is especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” helps them to vent anger? Contrary to tell them that doing that is OK, or reinforcing antisocial behavior? or a practice for innate cruelty?
    There could be a significant distinction between working out feelings like you would do in a therapeutic setting than developing your cruelty. And as in everything, there is no substitue to good jugdement.

  17. On the one hand; on the other hand; first, second, third, overall, as such . . . etc. etc. etc.

  18. Regarding the counter-argument that children already play war-games (cops-and-robbers, Yanks-and-Rebs, that politically-incorrectly titled cowboys-and-Indians game), I think there are two real differences between that and video games.

    First, video games are so graphic, they give the impression of being real. When you “shoot” a friend with a stick you are pretending is a gun and he staggers to the ground, I suspect at some level we know that this is a much tidier view of war. Video games can be gruesome, but since the people massacred are either the “other” or else so minor you have no reason to be attached to them, the violence is exhilarating rather than frightening. I wonder whether there isn’t a risk of dehumanizing that you don’t see in those childhood games, since they seem real but are in a sense rather “tidy.”

    Also, in video games – at least the RPG-style games I play – there are some baddies you are supposed to kill. In reality there may be pressure to view a certain group as your enemy, but I think the ultimate decision is left with the individual or at least his individual commander. That’s different than the video games, since the video games remove the rational process from the person actually carrying out the violence.

    My instinct is that both of these considerations make video game violence worse than those childhood games. But I have been teaching all day and am too worn out to tease out exactly why right now – or whether this is an issue the law should address.

  19. I know there are many out there that are addicted to video games and most of these video games are related to violence which is not good because it might give a harmful effect to the person’s behavior. I bet that most addicted to games are teens and they turn into at risk youth that gets involve in physical, verbal or emotional violence.

  20. I am writing a 4000 word essay on this exact topic and I was instructed to look at different blogs and comment on one…I chose this one because it is the most controversial medium for my generation. I believe, that, it shouldn’t be the state’s responsibility to censor what games fall into children’s hands, but the household. Within the private walls of the household, the parents are in charge and its their decision what their children plays.

    At the same speed, I believe that infact video games aren’t harmfull but rather are cathartic, just like the Colosseum in Rome. While throwing people into an arena full of lions might be immoral, video games have found a way to be an active catharsis by their indirectness. While age will always be controversial, when talking about anything, I believe that the clear division between reality and video games, age doesn’t matter. I understood, at 7 years old, that what I was doing in Grand Theft Auto 3 wasn’t to be replicated in real life, because just like in the game, the police would catch you.

    Although that is my viewpoint, I also believe that just like a violent image, horror movie or even profanity on MTV affects our children in an undefinable, so far, way. While brain activity is usually heightened, when playing a video game or watching a horror movie, that doesn’t prove anything in terms of long term effects.

  21. Marcos,

    Being an avid gamer, I do believe that they can also serve to have a cathartic effect. However, I do have some concerns about the impact of very violent games on younger kids-but that seems to be a matter best addressed by parents (as you note).

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