New Legislation Mandates Investigation of Video Games and Violent Behavior

December 21, 2012
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In the wake of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D – WV), has introduced a bill mandating that the National Academy of Sciences investigate the effect of violent video games on children. Rockefeller’s bill comes in the wake of reports that shooter Adam Lanza was an avid player of video games. Rockefeller’s bill is the most recent in a decades long line of attempts to legislate media violence that started with the 1954 Senate subcommittee hearings against comics. These attempts are unconstitutional, and CBLDF makes every effort to fight them, as we did in Brown v. EMA, in which the Supreme Court cited our amicus brief in striking down a California law attempting to regulate the sale of violent video games.

Ted Johnson with Variety reported on the bill. In the article, Johnson quotes Rockefeller on his motivation for introducing the bill:

“Recent court decisions demonstrate that some people still do not get it,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “They believe that violent video games are no more dangerous to young minds than classic literature or Saturday morning cartoons. Parents, pediatricians, and psychologists know better. These court decisions show we need to do more and explore ways Congress can lay additional groundwork on this issue. This report will be a critical resource in this process.”

One of the recent court decisions that Rockefeller is referring to is the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. EMA, invalidating a California law that regulated the sale of video games. The law sought to restrict the sale of violent video games to children under the age of 18, but it would have made violent speech a form of prohibited speech, alongside obscenity. CBLDF filed an amicus brief in opposition to the law, and the brief was quoted in the majority opinion. In the brief, CBLDF illustrated the link between contemporary moral panic over video games with the moral panic of the 1950s that led to the censorship of comic books for several subsequent decades — censorship that nearly led to the demise of the comics industry.

In the course of commenting on Rockefeller’s bill, Gabe Rottman, Legislative Counsel for the ACLU, discusses Justice Anton Scalia’s majority opinion in Brown v. EMA and how violent speech can have redemptive value:

[Scalia’s] main point here was that there’s no “longstanding tradition” of restricting children’s access to depictions of violence; had there been one, it might have bolstered California’s argument that the government has an interest in regulating access. That is certainly true, but there’s a larger point that Justice Scalia did not expressly make: sometimes depictions of violence in media consumed by children have cultural and social worth. Lord of the Flies, for example, a book graphically depicting child-murder by children, is required reading in many schools.

Variety shares the Entertainment Software Association’s response to Rockefeller’s bill:

In a statement, the Entertainment Software Association said that “our heartfelt prayers and condolences go out to the families who lost loved ones, and to the entire community of Newtown.”

The ESA added, “The search for meaningful solutions must consider the broad range of actual factors that may have contributed to this tragedy. Any such study needs to include the years of extensive research that has shown no connection between entertainment and real-life violence.”

The evidence linking violent video games with violent behavior is specious, and frequently politicians and pundits cite inaccurate and poorly designed studies to support their argument that the industry should be regulated – regulation that harkens to the persecution of comic books in the 1950s. Fredric Wertham used his expertise as a psychologist in testifying against comic books during Senate hearings in 1954, but his testimony was not based on actual scientific study, but on anecdotal evidence, personal opinion, and false conclusions.

Attempts to link video games and aggressive thoughts and behavior are weak, and no evidence has been found to link consumption of violent media with the perpetration of violent crime. The study frequently cited by the factions who would censor video games is Craig A. Anderson et al’s “Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review” (Psychological Bulletin, American Psychological Association, 2010, Vol. 136, No. 2, 151–173), a survey of studies done by other institutions and individuals. However, in “Much Ado About Nothing: The Misestimation and Overinterpretation of Violent Video Game Effects in Eastern and Western Nations: Comment on Anderson et al. (2010)” (Psychological Bulletin, American Psychological Association, 2010, Vol. 136, No. 2, 174–178), Christoper J. Ferguson and John Kilburn took Anderson to task for incorporating biased and flawed studies into their meta-analysis. Many of these studies did not consider other environmental factors that influence violent behavior, such as socioeconomic status and substance abuse. Further, Ferguson and Kilburn noted that even as violent video game use has increased, crime rates among youth have actually plummeted, and further illustrated that Anderson’s statistical data could be interpreted to mean the opposite of the conclusion Anderson drew.

Rockefeller’s bill mandating the investigation of the effects of video games on children may attempt to respond to the events at Newtown, but history demonstrates that such attempts are wrongheaded and ultimately fail. From Rottman’s article for the ACLU:

Now, why does that matter? Because if it’s true that depictions of violence have cultural, literary or social merit independent of the violence, the government shouldn’t be in the business of policing access, be it by children or adults. If the depiction of violence triggers the power to censor, government can then use that violence as a proxy to censor the underlying message. Lord of the Flies is a particularly good example in that the graphic violence serves a broader allegory about, among other things, human political and social organization (things that a government may very well want to censor).

CBLDF is staunchly opposed to any legislation that could limit constitutionally-protected free speech, and we will be watching this situation closely.

This holiday season, The Will & Ann Eisner Family Foundation is encouraging everyone who believes in the CBLDF’s important work protecting the freedom to read comics to become a member or give a gift membership in the organization. When you do, they will contribute $10 for each new membership and $5 for every renewing membership made from now until December 31, so join today!

Betsy Gomez is the Web Editor for CBLDF.