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Debate: Ban on sale of violent video games to minors

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Background and context

The US Supreme Court ruled in June of 2011 against California's ban on the sale of violent video games to minors. The California law would have imposed $1,000 fines on stores that sold violent video games to anyone under 18. The ruling highlights what is a much larger, national and international debate regarding the effect of violent video games on youth, and the potential need, subsequently, for the regulation of their sale. The California law defined violent games as those 'in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being' in a way that was 'patently offensive,' appealed to minors’ 'deviant or morbid interests' and lacked 'serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.'"[1] Accepting that this description of violent video games may be true, the debate about banning them relates largely to the limits of free speech and government censorship.

Arguments

Pro

  • Violent game ban puts children above corporations. Leland Yee, a California state senator who wrote the law, said in a statement that “the Supreme Court once again put the interests of corporate America before the interests of our children. It is simply wrong that the video game industry can be allowed to put their profit margins over the rights of parents and the well-being of children.”[2]
  • Some games so offensive they are certainly harmful to youth. Justice Alito: “The objective of one game is to rape a mother and her daughters [...] players attempt to fire a rifle shot into the head of President Kennedy as his motorcade passes by the Texas School Book Depository.” He also added that children may soon play three-dimensional high-definition games wearing equipment that allows them to “feel the splatting blood from the blown-off head” of a victim.[3]
  • Legislators have grounds to conclude harm to children. Justice Breyer: “Unlike the majority. I would find sufficient grounds in these studies and expert opinions for this court to defer to an elected legislature’s conclusion that the video games in question are particularly likely to harm children.”[4]


Con

  • Violent video games are defended by the first amendment. Justice Scalia wrote in his opinion defending the June 2011 Supreme Court ruling against the California ban on the sale of video games to minors: "Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection."[5]
  • Depictions of violence not category exempted from free speech. Only a few kinds of speech, like incitement, obscenity and fighting words, are beyond the protection of the First Amendment, according to Justice Scalia, adding that the court would not lightly create new excluded categories.[6]
  • Violent games don't have clear "harm" to kids. Justice Scalia opinion: “No doubt a state possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm, but that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed."[7]

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