The Supreme Court was right in ruling this week that video games, even ones that depict scenes of graphic violence, are protected speech under the First Amendment and that states can't pass laws restricting their sale to minors. The better approach is a voluntary rating system similar to the one that many video game manufacturers and sellers already have adopted, which is akin to the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings for violence and sexual content in movies.
Yet, strongly as we support the constitutional principle at hand, we're troubled by the reasoning the court used to arrive at this conclusion. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the homicidal mayhem found in some games is essentially no different from violent episodes recounted in many children's fairy tales.
This strikes us as naïve. At worst, such comparisons make one wonder whether the justice has actually seen the materials he's writing about. There's a huge difference between the mental act of imagining the gory episodes in such traditional tales as Snow White, Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel — to use three of the examples cited by Justice Scalia — and being confronted with realistic depictions of cruelty, brutality and sadism that invite the viewer's participation as a form of entertainment.
It was precisely this interactive character of video games, which not only allow viewers to witness acts of extreme violence but also encourage them to commit unspeakable atrocities in a virtual world free of all moral restraint, that prompted California lawmakers to ban their sale to minors in the first place. They did so on the not unreasonable theory that the effect of such gruesome spectacles on impressionable young minds was likely to be unpredictable, and possibly even dangerous.
Do violent video games make otherwise normal youngsters more prone to violent behavior, or encourage violent acts among troubled youths who already may have a latent propensity for such behavior? Scientific opinion on the long-term effects of exposure to such material remains divided, with some researchers even claiming it may have a beneficial influence by siphoning off violent impulses. Still, it's hard to imagine that prolonged engagement in scenarios that call on players to torture and murder countless virtual victims would have no effect on young people's psychological development.
That's why parents need to scrutinize the video games their children are playing just as carefully as they monitor what movies, videos and television programs they watch — and why the exponentially more violent scenes of slaughter and bloodshed in such materials should be of far greater concern to parents than they evidently are to Justice Scalia.
Today's violent video games have profoundly upped the ante in realism and engagement, to the point where they may affect us and our real-life behavior in a totally different way than traditional books and movies, let alone the stories transmitted orally around a campfire under the stars.
But however one chooses to label them, they definitely aren't your grandfather's fairy tales. Our Constitution from the 18th century may not have been able to account precisely for this new medium, but parents setting rules in the 21st century had better do so.