Last December’s massacre at Sandy Hook elementary was a grim reminder that gun violence is an all too real issue that we are plagued with today. In addition to targeting gun control itself, both legislators and concerned citizens are constantly looking for other avenues to place blame. New Jersey, for example, is choosing to point the finger at video games to explain these ever increasing tragedies.
Recently, the New Jersey Legislature passed a proposal that would require the Department of Education to distribute “research and statistics on how violent behavior increases after exposure to violent [media]” and “scientific findings that show children who play violent games are more likely to be involved in physical altercations.” These claims have been specifically rejected by the Supreme Court and lower courts, but New Jersey is attempting to get around this by picking and choosing the information to include in the document. It seems as though these lawmakers have already made up their minds about the adverse effects of these violent games; they are not necessarily concerned with reporting scientifically accurate information to the public, but to support their agenda in censoring video games.
Additionally, in proposing a law that would require parental consent for minors to obtain M or AO-rated games, New Jersey lawmakers are attempting to ignore the Supreme Court finding that video games are protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court rejected a similar attempt to restrict video games sales to minors in California based upon research that shows that links between fantasy violence in video games and real world violence is just far too attenuated (for more information, check out Brown v. EMA in the CBLDF case files). In addition, every court that has been faced with this problem has agreed that the effects are too small and could easily be attributed to something as “harmless” as Saturday morning cartoons.
Joan E. Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship — a frequent partner with CBLDF in the fight against censorship — wrote an oped for NJ.com about the proposal from New Jersey, calling for Chris Christie to veto the proposal on First Amendment grounds:
For starters, proposals to restrict sales of video games to minors would be blatantly unconstitutional in light of a recent Supreme Court decision striking down such an attempt in California. After an exhaustive review of the scientific evidence presented to support the California law and others like it, the Court concluded that studies purporting to link fantasy violence in video games to real-world violence “have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively.” To the extent the studies show any effect on children’s “feelings of aggression, those effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.” Indeed, as the Court noted, the evidence demonstrates similar effects from watching Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons.
It’s difficult not to notice how prevalent violence is in our every day lives. Just watching the news, you undoubtedly are going to be exposed to violence in some form. Other examples of violence can be found in everything from religion to the arts. The Bible itself contains many instances of violence, as does classic literature and even Oscar-winning movies. These pieces of our culture are not only cherished for their artistic value, but for their academic value as well. Video games that contain violence should not be written off as having no intrinsic value simply because it is a visual and interactive medium. It is important to adjust to new technology and cultural norms rather than reverting to archaic ways of thought.
Looking for a scapegoat in the face of incomprehensible tragedy is nothing new. Music lyrics, comic books, pulp magazines, movies, and television shows have all been blamed in the past. Countless people are exposed to these “provocative” forms of media, yet nearly all don’t commit these terrible acts. For many, it is difficult to accept that acts of violence often derive from disturbed individuals or even unexplained circumstances with no underlying cause. It would not only be unfair, it would be a crime to unconstitutionally censor video games as half-baked attempt to curtail gun violence.
Proposals to regulate video games or dispense half-truths about the effects of popular entertainment not only divert attention from the effort to undertake a serious inquiry into gun violence but also ignore the inherent value of creative expression that confronts and reflects the human condition, including its most confounding aspects.
Regulation of the distribution of video games is not only a poor method of promoting gun control, it would restrict the First Amendment right of those who wish to play, make, and distribute these games. Exploring creative endeavors is best left up to the individual, and as explained by the Supreme Court, the government has sought to protect children from obscenity, not violence. We can only hope that New Jersey lawmakers realize that suppressing freedom of speech by targeting video games is not an adequate form of gun control, and that they develop a more focused effort to tackle the real problem at hand.
Eric Margolis is a 3L at St. John’s Law School who wishes to pursue a career in Entertainment / Intellectual Property law.