Supreme Court to Decide on Regulation of 'Violent' Video Games

The U.S. Supreme Court says it wants to have a say about whether states can regulate rental of "violent" video games. California state legislators tried to regulate sales and rentals to children, even though the question of whether video games lead to violence is still wide open.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which struck down the California law, said it was not convinced by the research and the experts the state relied on.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court says it will decide whether the state was within its constitutional powers. (Read the California law here.)

Video games, like movies, already carry warning labels, but the California law would have made the labels even tougher. It would have required games sold and rented in California to have special labels:

"Each violent video game that is imported into or distributed in California for retail sale shall be labeled with a solid white '18' outlined in black. The '18' shall have dimensions of no less than 2 inches by 2 inches. The '18' shall be displayed on the front face of the video game package."

And if a retailer violated the California law, he or she would face a $1,000 fine. The state of California specifically mentioned the popular games Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Postal 2 and Duke Nukem 3D.

The Associated Press reported on Monday:

"The high court's action Monday was surprising, given that justices just last week voted 8-1 to strike down a federal law that banned videos showing animal cruelty. The California case poses similar free speech concerns, although the state law is aimed at protecting children, raising an additional issue that affect[s] the high court's consideration.

"California lawmakers approved the law, in part, by relying on several studies suggesting that some video games can be linked to aggression, anti-social behavior and desensitization to violence in children. But federal judges have dismissed that research."

Various studies through the years show that parents often do little to monitor their kids' gaming habits. Children tell researchers that parents know little about the current ratings system. The majority of teens questioned said their parents did not limit the number of hours that the kids play video games.

Can retailers do the job without more government regulation?

In 2008, a Federal Trade Commission study found that retailers nationwide were making it much more difficult for minors to buy videos and games rated "M," or "Mature." Movie theaters were making it more difficult to attend "R" rated movies, too:

"The survey found that results of the undercover shopping varied by retailer and product. Three movie chains -- National Entertainment, Regal Entertainment Group, and American Multi-Cinema -- turned away 80% or more of the underage teens who tried to buy a ticket to an R-rated movie. Wal-Mart did the best of the major retailers shopped for movie DVDs, denying sales of R-rated and Unrated DVDs to 75% of the child shoppers.

"With regard to M-rated video games, Game Stop rejected an impressive 94% of underage shoppers, while Wal-Mart and Best Buy spurned 80% of them."

This FTC chart helps break down the study's findings:

Table D: Video Games (M-Rated)
# of Shops
% Able to Purchase
Game Stop/EB Games
Best Buy
Toys R Us
Circuit City
Hollywood Video

Recently, an Australian study surprised everyone when it said that teenagers who play violent games just before bedtime do not lose sleep. The kids fall asleep in just about the same time as those who did not play.

Eight video game violence "myths"

Henry Jenkins, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a list of what he believes to be "myths" surrounding video game violence. Among them:

Myth #1: "The availability of video games has led to an epidemic of youth violence.

"According to federal crime statistics, the rate of juvenile violent crime in the United States is at a 30-year low.

Myth #2: "Scientific evidence links violent game play with youth aggression.

"Claims like this are based on the work of researchers who represent one relatively narrow school of research, 'media effects.' This research includes some 300 studies of media violence. But most of those studies are inconclusive and many have been criticized on methodological grounds.

Myth #3: "Children are the primary market for video games.

"While most American kids do play video games, the center of the video game market has shifted older as the first generation of gamers continues to play into adulthood. Already 62 percent of the console market and 66 percent of the PC market is age 18 or older."

Myth #4: "Almost no girls play computer games.

"Historically, the video game market has been predominantly male. However, the percentage of women playing games has steadily increased over the past decade. Women now slightly outnumber men playing Web-based games."

Interestingly, one federal appeals judge, Richard Posner, has even suggested that it could be important for kids to experience the effects of violence, which video games simulate. Jenkins quoted Posner as saying:

"Violence has always been and remains a central interest of humankind and a recurrent, even obsessive theme of culture both high and low. It engages the interest of children from an early age, as anyone familiar with the classic fairy tales collected by Grimm, Andersen, and Perrault are aware. ...

"To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it."

The history of video gaming

You might think of video gaming as being a recent development, but the roots of video games were planted more than 50 years ago.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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