Violent video games: Who controls the joystick?


According to a Washington joke, Republicans want to censor sex and Democrats want to censor violence. But a California law forbidding the sale of violent video games to minors was signed by Republican Gov. Arnold “Terminator” Schwarzenegger and defended in court by Democratic Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown. Fortunately, this bipartisan blunder has been undone by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Brown shouldn’t risk another embarrassment by taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Under the law, signed in 2005, a 4-square-inch label reading “18” would have to be affixed to violent video games. Anyone who sold such a game to a minor could be fined as much as $1,000. The law was challenged in court by video software companies.

The law raised a multitude of constitutional concerns. First, as the state eventually conceded, one of the definitions of “violent” was too broad. A game was violent if a player “virtually” harmed not only human beings but “characters with substantially human characteristics” (good news for centaurs and bipedal hedgehogs). But even when that language was severed from the rest of the law, the appeals court said the statute was unconstitutional.


Proponents of the law justified it by citing assorted studies linking violent video games to what one researcher called “increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect and cardiovascular arousal, and to decreases in helping behavior.” Yet the appeals court pointed to disclaimers by the same experts in concluding that none of the research established a causal link between minors playing violent video games and psychological or neurological harm. In the absence of a connection, the court said, “the state has not met its burden to demonstrate a compelling interest” in limiting free expression.

Important as it is, the court’s legal analysis doesn’t identify an easy alternative for parents who are justifiably concerned about the effects of violent video games, films or comic books on their children. But the primary responsibility for protecting minors from potentially harmful influences lies with parents, as it did long before video games were a twinkle in a programmer’s eye. Parents don’t need a law to urge makers of video games to strengthen their current voluntary ratings systems. More important, they don’t need permission from a legislator or judge to keep an eye on what their children are doing -- or playing.