In the late 1920s, as Americans became more and more concerned about the effect "talking pictures" might have on impressionable youth, the Payne Fund commissioned a series of studies on the subject. Movies, the researchers reported, put children into an emotional state, affected their sleep patterns, and probably contributed to juvenile delinquency. Among the alarming findings was that movie scenes with erotic themes seemed to make teenagers highly aroused. If you can believe it.
Over the last century, we've seen one moral panic after another about culture corrupting the young. Jazz, movies, comic books, heavy metal, gansta rap -- whenever a new form of entertainment seemingly more intense and involving comes along, adults fear young minds are being warped and twisted, that Beaver Cleaver is being transformed into Dylan Klebold.
Which brings us to video games, pegged as a fertilizer of mayhem and murder when Klebold and Eric Harris killed 13 of their classmates at Columbine High School 11 years ago. The Supreme Court last week agreed to hear a challenge to a California law that makes it illegal to sell a violent video game to a minor. Although similar laws have been struck down repeatedly in lower courts, this is the first time the Supreme Court will consider the question. In order to uphold the law, the Court must conclude both that the harm to children from violent video games is clear and substantial and that a legal restriction on the sale of these games is a reasonable answer to that problem. Both of those conclusions are hard to sustain.
Before we talk about the social science, we should get one thing clear: If you haven't looked at a video game since you were dropping quarters into the Donkey Kong machine a quarter of a century ago, you will be shocked by the violence of some of today's games. It isn't the quantity that's changed (after all, early games like Space Invaders were nothing but nonstop pshew-pshew-pshew); it's the quality. Steady advances in the sophistication of computer graphics have brought us ever more realistic blood sprays, bone crunches, and decapitations.
At the same time, video games have grown exponentially in their narrative complexity, creating rich, immersive worlds that require not just fast trigger fingers but planning and reasoning to navigate successfully. For instance, the Grand Theft Auto series has gotten more attention than any other for its violence, but that violence is actually a relatively small portion of the overall experience that is almost universally hailed by game critics (much of the criticism of GTA has to do with the narrative context of the violence, like the fact that you can choose to kill a prostitute with whom you've just slept). The development of the latest version, Grand Theft Auto 4, reportedly involved over 1,000 people and cost more than $100 million.
And despite the stereotype of the gamer as a lonely, socially awkward teenage boy, video-game playing has practically become the American national pastime. The Pew Research Center found that that 99 percent of teen boys and 94 percent of teen girls play video games. It isn't just kids, either: Over half of adults play regularly, including nearly a quarter of senior citizens. The video-game industry took in over $20 billion in 2009, compared to the $10.6 billion in global box-office revenue for the movie industry.
Many of the biggest video-game titles of recent years feature generous amounts of violence, and the idea that playing these games must have a lasting impact has intuitive appeal. A substantial number of studies show a relationship between violent game play and increases in aggression in children and teens. But this research has come under sharp criticism from scholars who see methodological problems (like the difficulty in controlling for key factors like family environment) and conclude that the effects are simply too small to warrant the kind of panic we sometimes see. If you show that some kids who play violent games are more aggressive, you may only be saying that aggressive kids are drawn to violent games. You can establish causality in a lab -- have people play a game, then give them a task in which their level of aggression can be measured -- but that's a short-term effect that might or might not mirror what happens over time in the real world. As sometimes happens in social science, each new study seems to make the picture muddier. Sorting through the competing claims is difficult, but the clearest conclusion may be that violent video games probably increase some kinds of aggression in some kids to some degree under some circumstances.
What, then, is a policy-maker to do? The video-game industry already has a voluntary rating system; most of the controversial games get an "M" rating for "mature," which means they're geared toward players age 17 and older (there is an "Adults Only" rating that game producers try to avoid; just as most theaters won't run NC-17-rated films, large retailers won't carry AO-rated games). But in California, the Legislature (with the signature of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) decided that wasn't enough. A 2005 law made it illegal to sell to a minor any game "in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being" (there are some other details, such as whether the game "appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors," but you get the idea). The law was struck down by the Court of Appeals -- just as every similar law attempting to do the same thing has been -- and the Supreme Court will now decide its fate.
You might think that California passed this law because 8-year-olds were strolling out of their local Wal-Mart with the latest version of Resident Evil. But it turns out that when it comes to enforcing age requirements, retailers do a better job with video games than with other media. The Federal Trade Commission found that video games were the most difficult to obtain:
So nearly three times as many of the FTC teen testers were able to walk into a store and buy a DVD of something like Saw than were able to buy a copy of a game like Grand Theft Auto. Especially given the fact that most kids who play violent M-rated games have them because their parents bought the game for them (or their friends' parents did), it makes you wonder whether a law like California's would make any difference, even if you do agree with its goals.
Entertainment has involved violence since our cave-dwelling ancestors sat around the fire recounting tales of their most dangerous hunts. Whatever that says about our species, it isn't going to change. The question for the Supreme Court isn't whether violent games can have a problematic effect but how far the government can go in imposing legal restrictions to prevent that effect from occurring. You don't have to be comfortable with the idea of little kids playing Doom to think that on this question, there's almost nothing the government can -- or should -- do about it.