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Do We Need Laws Protecting Our Children From Video Games?

Do We Need Laws Protecting Our Children From Video Games?

Back in the mid-1980s the leather-clad metal band Judas Priest found themselves embroiled in a trail that was both horrendously sad and almost comically absurd. The court case (which didn’t go to trial until 1990) involved a double suicide of two Nevada teens, Raymond Belknap and James Vance, who, after liberally drinking, smoking lots of pot, and listening to Judas Priest, were moved to attempt a double suicide with a 12-gauge shotgun. Belknap was successful in his suicide attempt, but Vance was not, and wound up surviving the attempt and was left seriously disfigured. Vance’s parents, after learning that Vance was allegedly inspired by a Judas Priest album, decided to mount a liability suit against the members of Judas Priest, holding the band responsible for feeding ideas to the boys and inspiring them to kill themselves. The trail was a circus and was ultimately dismissed, as there was no evidence of malicious or subversive intent by the band, but served as a very unfortunate commentary on the tenuous nature of first amendment rights, as well as the personal responsibility of individuals for their actions.

This court case came to mind when last year the Supreme Court ruled against, on First Amendment grounds, a California law that banned the sale of violent video games to children. The California law, which was deemed unconstitutional by the high court, would have imposed $1,000 fines on stores that sold violent video games to anyone under 18, and was put in place to protect children and teens from the excessively violent images and actions contained in many popular video games. In a ruling that was criticized as a victory for big business and a tragedy for children and parents, Justice Scalia defended the courts decision. “Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world),” Justice Scalia wrote. “That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”

For anyone at all familiar with the variety of video games available, there are just as many creative and innovative gaming options as there are gratuitously violent options, and the violent ones are sometimes shockingly violent. The justices sited in their arguments games that simulated rape, murder, and assassination. The obvious fear is that if young impressionable minds engage in these games they will grow numb to the violence and possibly become violent themselves. Emily Bazelon in writing for The New York Times last year (prior to the ruling) took a look at other past efforts to protect children from questionable, and sometimes objectionable, material. In the 1800s, dime novels were blamed for juvenile delinquency. In the early 1900s, it was early movies; in the 1950s, radio dramas and comic books; and next came TV and music lyrics, like in the case of Judas Priest mentioned above.

For many parents, who were looking for the proposed California law to set a precedent and offer some protection from excessively violent content, this ruling makes all children all the more vulnerable. If children are prohibited from buying pornography, should they also be prohibited from buying video games that are violently pornographic? Is there something more vividly engaging about video games that presents a clear and present danger to young minds? Does the protection of free speech trump any concerns about the implied safety of children?

Read more: Babies, Blogs, Children, Family, Parenting at the Crossroads, Teens, , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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10:32PM PDT on Jul 12, 2013

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4:46AM PDT on May 28, 2013

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6:53PM PDT on Jun 8, 2012

if a game has x rated material, yes.. you should have to be 18 or older to buy it. its no different than rated r movies and porn mags. as for violence, the fact that rape and murder are free to watch and "role play" is sickening to me. it shouldnt even be allowed to be sold

10:03AM PDT on Apr 1, 2012

i never understood the thrill or allure of shooter games, and games simulating rape is just morally wrong but when all is said and done, its up to the parents to decide what they find acceptable for their kids. sure there are moron parents who think its ok for their 7 year old to play grand theft auto but they are the ones who will deal with any consequences, if any.

7:14PM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

Aren't there any in place already? YES strict laws!

7:03PM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

Aren't there any in place already? YES strict laws!

6:46AM PST on Mar 9, 2012

Children already can't buy M-Rated video games. This bill wanted a blanket ban on violent video games, so I'm glad it wasn't passed.

11:05AM PST on Mar 5, 2012

1. Kids already can't buy video games with an m rating without ID proving that they are 17 or older. Which means that PARENTS are buying them. I play violent video games but i am 25 when I choose to have kids they won't have access to my collection. 2. I have seen people get fired for selling video games without reading what's on the back of the game to a parent or checking for ID. So if you want to buy your kids these games clearly meant for adults then you have to deal with your child and your choices. Not me, Not the government.

9:15AM PST on Mar 5, 2012

First of all let me say that I don't think small children should play violent games. But, I don't think the government needs to step in and decide which children are old enough to see them at what age. That needs to be the parental responsibility. I enjoy playing video games on my computer some of them quite violent, but I am responsible enough to know the difference between a video game and reality.

2:08AM PST on Mar 5, 2012


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