It's plain to see that some parents - many, in fact - aren't doing their job when it comes to keeping violent video games away from their children. But is it time for laws to do it instead?
Last week, in a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said no. In a 7-2 ruling, the court overturned a 2005 California law that would have fined retailers convicted of selling violent video games to minors. In its ruling, the court said that violent video games are subject to the same First Amendment protections as other possibly violent art forms, like art, books or plays.
The law was sponsored by a San Francisco state senator named Leland Yee. Among his credentials is a PhD in child psychology, and Yee is convinced that violent video games can trigger violent activity in kids. Some of the testimony presented to the court underscored that belief, but it was largely discounted in the court's ruling; in writing their opinion, the prevailing justices felt that the science was far from conclusive.
The Supreme Court justices are right - for every study that tries to establish a link between playing violent video games and exhibiting violent behavior, there seems to be another study that contradicts it. We are far from understanding exactly how the mind works. It's easier to err on the side of caution, especially when we come to children, but it's much harder to enter that into evidence in a court of law as irrefutable fact.
Yee says that he'll continue the fight once he's had a chance to study the court's ruling, perhaps introducing a new law that will ultimately pass Constitutional muster. Yee's also in the midst of a mayoral run for San Francisco, so we'll see how soon that happens.
A new study from Rasmussen Reports shows that a solid majority of respondents think that it's okay for states to restrict violent video game sales to minors - 67 percent. But an even larger majority feel that parents are more responsible than the government for limiting how violent images are shown to kids.
History is squarely not on the side of legislators when it come to regulating violent video game content to children. While the Supreme Court decision is the latest and highest-profile example of a video game law being overturned, it's not the first time states have tried to do so. Each and every time, the laws have been overturned by the time they get to the federal level. The federal judiciary takes a very strong view favoring the First Amendment in these cases.
That's obviously not going to stop well-meaning politicians from trying to pass laws, of course. "Think of the children" is easy. It makes for great headlines, and once a state legislature passes a bill and the governor signs it into law, they've done their job. If it dies in court, well, the politicians can wash their hands of it. Activist judges in the pocket of corporate America. Et cetera.
In fairness, I don't know anyone who advocates for little kids to play excessively violent video games. In the same way, I don't now anyone who advocates for little kids to watch torture movies like Saw or Hostel. That's grown-up entertainment. Or "entertainment," depending on your taste.
But it never fails to interest me that parents are often much more passive about letting their kids play violent video games than they are about watching violent movies or TV shows.
For a number of years, I've been invited to speak at the career day held at my kids' elementary school. I explain that I'm a writer, and that my job has to do with video games. That, predictably, gets their attention. And every year, I'm disappointed with the number of kids who raise their hands when I ask them if they're allowed to play violent video games. Little ones, in third or fourth grade, routinely regale me with intricate, graphic stories about things they've done in games that are rated M for Mature - that is, games that are explicitly labeled (and marketed) for adults.
The reasons for the kids' exposure to violent video games are varied, but they usually boil down to a few basic themes:
1) An older brother or sister plays the games, and the parents don't mind the younger ones doing it. After all, it keeps them busy.
2) The parents - often the dad - play those games and don't mind letting the kids play.
3) The parents have purchased the game specifically for the kid, and have no idea of what's really in it. Many times the kid has the game system in their own room or in a special kid's play room, so the parent doesn't supervise what they're playing.
Any way you slice it, there's a big double-standard when it comes to kids and violent content in video games.
But to turn full-circle to my original question - is it time to pass a law?
In short, no. Why?
Because you can't legislate common sense.
Laws aren't going to change human nature. Parents are going to continue to use video game systems as babysitters and entertainment devices for their kids, because they work. And violent video games are going to continue to be created because they sell.
The best I think we can hope for is to continue to educate parents about the rating systems used to label content in video games. Here in the US, that's the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) system, which works a bit like the one that motion pictures use. Europe uses the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system, which accomplishes the same thing.
And we can continue to patronize retailers who voluntarily check IDs for potentially under age buyers. (In my town, my local GameStop does a pretty good job of policing its customers to make sure they're of the appropriate age to buy the games they want. Your mileage may vary, of course.)
But leaving it up to the courts or to the politicians is a big mistake.
We don't need more laws. We just need more common sense.