Video Games: Why Kids Complicate Freedom of Speech - Legalize This Week on BTR


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On this Fourth of July, let us turn our attention to what is quite possibly the most American of freedoms: speech. Without a doubt, patriots take pride in their unique liberties to have opinions and make them known, free of political or religious persecution. We’re well into the summer, and you may have already forgotten your history lessons, so here’s a refresher on the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law…. abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Short and simple, the First Amendment guarantees Americans the freedom to say, print, or express what they want, with few exceptions. For example, freedom of speech does not give you the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie theatre when there is no fire. So, for the protection of those around you (in the theatre) your speech will be censored (not saying “fire” in a crowded movie theatre).

As simple as the First Amendment may seem, it continues to be a hotly debated piece of legislature, especially when children are involved. Only days ago, a California law brought before the Supreme Court would have made it illegal to sell violent video games to minors. However, the court decided in defense of free speech and struck down the California law, citing that there was “no tradition in this country of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence. … Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed.”

By this logic, the court decision determines that video games are entitled to the same constitutional protection given to other forms of expression, like classic literature and film. While the law can shield children from pornographic content, violence does not fall under the category of “obscenity” the way pornography does.

This case in particular raises a few questions when it comes to media censorship for the protection of children. Naturally, those most concerned with controlling that content are the parents of said children, but for the parents who don’t want their kids to play violent video games, the ruling has led to polarizing conclusions. The president of the Entertainment Software Association, Michael Gallagher, reportedly affirmed that the ruling empowers parents to be the decision-makers for their children. “They [parents] are to be in control, not the state, of the content that is used, consumed and enjoyed in the home.”

Yet others, like Tim Winter, were also reported countering that the ruling has taken power away from parents by constitutionally protecting the rights of video game makers. As president of the Parents Television Council in Los Angeles, Winter contended that it “replaces the authority of parents with the economic interests of the video game industry.”

As with the first example of shouting “fire!’ in a movie theatre, defenders of the California law deemed the violence in certain video games to be just as potentially harmful and dangerous to young children. However, Dan Hewitt, Vide President of Media Relations and Event Management at Entertainment Software Association, pointed out that fears of the dangerous effects of simulated violence in video games are unfounded.

“If you look at the decision, the Supreme Court specifically looked at the science surrounding video games and found that it wasn’t compelling,” Hewitt told BTR. “In fact, there are numerous social scientists and medical professionals who believe strongly that there is no connection between video games and real-life violence—a point that even the State of California conceded.”

Even if there is yet to be a proven connection between simulated violence and children replicating it in real life, it is not outside the realm of understanding that parents would find such violence offensive enough to want to keep away from their kids. Which is precisely why there are ratings clearly and concisely labeled on the packaging for computer and video games. The same way consumers read the nutritional value information printed on food products, parents can read the labels on video games in order to know exactly what their kids are taking in. Hewitt directed BTR to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the organization responsible for ensuring that the games bear these labels. Their mission echoes the same sentiment of empowering parents that Gallagher of the ESA expressed when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of video game makers.

It is clear by the parents still dissatisfied by the Supreme Court ruling that the tug of war between parents and game developers over content control will continue. Still, there are those, like co-founder of development studio Eat Sleep Play, David Jaffe, that think the issue of violent video games does not merit such continued consideration. For Jaffe, there is a time and a place for defending the First Amendment, but video games are not the arena for such a fight, nor should the Supreme Court be its referee.

“There are times to get angry and shout from the rooftops and fight for the ground breaking, life changing freedoms our countrymen have died for, but this was never one of those times. Not even close.”

The issue is that when it comes to children, parents will get angry and shout from the rooftops if they feel like their rights as parents are being undermined by the “mass media.” Video games, like all progressive media that came before them, are new and therefore subject to scrutiny. Parents hated rock and roll, yet now rock music is recognized for its influential role as an art form. The idea is that with time will come acceptance and understanding of the medium. However, if and when video games receive the same retrospective credit that literary classics like the Brothers Grimm have now attained, remains to be seen.

Written by: Mary Kate Polanin