What’s the Harm in the Government Spreading Fear About Video Games? A Lot, Actually!

Since our op-ed on New Jersey Senate Bill 2715 landed in the Times of Trenton, and our subsequent letter to Gov. Chris Christie was picked up by video game journalists, we’ve seen a couple questions pop up in comments and emails.

To recap, Senate Bill 2715 would require the New Jersey Department of Education to publish pamphlets, websites and other materials telling parents about scientific research indicating that media portrayals of violence can cause a host of ills in young people, ranging from insomnia to actual violent behavior.

The materials, created at taxpayers’ expense, will presumably not include research that reaches different conclusions or information that similar findings have been found to be flawed and unpersuasive to many courts, including the United States Supreme Court, in cases involving efforts to regulate violence in media.

So what’s the harm in a pamphlet? Aren’t you attempting to censor something, here?

We hear this counter-argument most often. The logic being that the initiative will simply make more information available to parents. Of course, the government is “free” to say whatever it chooses, but its speech is also subject to public scrutiny and criticism of the sort we have expressed. In this case, the stakes are heightened because the decision to promote inaccurate information is intended to, and will have the effect of, marginalizing speech that is protected by the First Amendment.

That’s right: the First Amendment protects the pixels, polygons and code that render Laura Croft, the Master Chief and all of their attendant explosions. In Brown vs. EMA, the highest court in the land ruled as such — the matter is settled. But since the Supreme Court ruled that states can’t restrict sales of video games to minors, states like New Jersey are now trying the more insidious approach of employing half-truths to scare parents away from video games. That is the harm in this legislation.

But how can you be sure media violence isn’t harmful? If companies invest billions in advertising to influence behavior, why wouldn’t video games influence young people?

The false equivalency between mediated fantasy violence and advertising is an interesting one. The average video war game actually does a better job of illustrating consequences for one’s actions than most advertising. Within the story of, say Call of Duty, players can be “wounded” and “die” in-game. Police at least attempt to punish crime in the world of Grand Theft Auto. When is the last time a fast food commercial showed someone suffering diabetes, or undergoing an angioplasty? When’s the last time a beer ad showed a poor schlub stumbling into work late, with a hangover?

No one can say that Left 4 Dead 2 has no effect on a player’s behavior. But people are far too complicated to predict how any single thing – be it a video game, book, film, image – might affect any given player. What effect do some of the more violent passages of the Old Testament have on a reader? Or films like Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, or Django Unchained? Or books like Beloved, Light in August, or No Country for Old Men? These things may not be to everyone’s taste – but each of us should be able to decide for ourselves, without the government telling us what’s good for us.

The video game industry already has an impressive system for rating video game content and explaining what those ratings mean. There is no pamphlet of cherry-picked research the government can publish that will be more effective than parents’ knowledge of their own children. Families need to talk about the games, movies and other media in their homes, and what those stories mean.

Passing legislation just to feel like “we’re doing something” about real world violence, when it accomplishes nothing and actually undermines the First Amendment, is politically bankrupt and socially damaging. Someone has to say it.

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Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
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