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The First Amendment is Not a Game

By ArickStall

On Monday, I wrote about Electronic Arts (EA) backing down to political pressure and changing some dynamics of their newest video game. Earlier this week, Michael D. Gallagher, President and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), wrote an op-ed I’d like to share. Simply put, restricting video games violates free speech.

In his editorial he rebukes the connection between fictitious video game violence and real violence, claiming that legalities are typically founded on a “compelling basis,” as opposed to “myth.” Gallagher writes that:

…in November, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on a 2005 California law that would regulate the sale and rental of computer and video games to minors. The law is based on the discredited myth that the fictional depiction of violence actually causes real violence.

Gallagher continues, noting the history of the claim:

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit followed a lower court ruling and struck down California’s law as an infringement on constitutionally protected free speech. This was the latest of 12 consecutive decisions by federal judges across the nation to reject state efforts to restrict sales or rentals of video games. A key reason, according to the Ninth Circuit’s decision, was that California ‘has not produced substantial evidence … that violent video games cause psychological or neurological harm to minors.”

He goes further, acknowledging that 82 expert social scientists had rejected the link between real psychological harm and video game violence. To date, there has been no peer-reviewed research identifying a casual link between the two. The experts have called on the Supreme Court to ignore California’s law on the basis of insufficient research. Gallagher identifies others that are in support of rejecting the law:

Leading U.S. government authorities such as the surgeon general, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission have also acknowledged that no scientific research validates this causal link.

Some of the scientists involved, specifically Harvard Medical school professors Dr. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson, wrote a book in 2008 entitled “Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Video Games and What Parents Can Do.” In this book they conclude that “the strong link between video game violence and real world violence, and the conclusion that video games lead to social isolation and poor interpersonal skills, are drawn from bad or irrelevant research, muddleheaded thinking and unfounded, simplistic news reports.”

Furthermore, we can take the common sense approach (bureaucrats are not well-known for this approach). While video game popularity and technology has expanded over the past two decades, “the rate of violent crime, particularly among the young, has been decreasing drastically.” I am not an expert, but I would expect different results if there were such a casual link from video game violence to real world crime.

The tirade began with California state Senator Leland Yee. Senator Yee, in an April 2010 interview with the L.A. Times, admits he does not play video games. In regards to that he replied:

I’m not a player. But I have seen individuals who play these games. I have seen individuals using a baseball bat and bludgeoning a hooker to death, or taking a gun and shooting a cop. Those are the direct result of someone pushing a button and making a conscious decision. I can see that that kind of connection between your action and the consequent behavior is dangerous.

He paints a very extreme picture for the video game industry in trying to tie it to a hooker being beat to death and a police officer being shot. He explains why media such as video games differs than that of film violence:

With a movie you can sit there for two hours and see everything. In these violent games, parents may never fully understand what they contain because you have to be a very sophisticated player to trigger them.

Perhaps that would be a restriction that can be set to the children by the individual parent, not a state (or possibly federal) mandate.

The VGVN (Video Game Voters Network) have begun a “You Can’t Control Me” campaign. The call to action is to send old and broken video game controllers to Senator Yee with a message written on the controllers: “I believe in the First Amendment.” I’m curious how many controllers will be shipped off to his office in California before the November 2nd hearing with the Supreme Court.


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