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Overturned video game ban lets the violence loose

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
Video game

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that banning minors from buying or renting violent video games violates their First Amendment right to free speech, overturning some states’ legislation to limit the sale and distribution of violent video games to those under 18.

California is one of seven states to be affected by the ruling, which upholds an earlier decision of the U.S. appeals court.

The law, overturned today by a 7-2 vote, was challenged by video game publishers, distributors and sellers, including the Entertainment Software Association. Its members include Disney Interactive Studios, Electronic Arts, Microsoft Corp and Sony Computer Entertainment America. The media entertainment giants threw whatever legal might they could afford to wage a six-year-old battle against the attempted government limits on violent media exposure in children – limits which never had the opportunity to take effect because of the immediate legal challenges launched by the corporate conglomerates.

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In light of today’s ruling, one wonders if a similar defeat is not in the works if any such attempts are made against the convenience food industry, a topic we touched upon today in another relevant story. Of course, there are those who would argue that limits on fast food and its advertising might make more sense because of the demonstrated harm it does to physical bodies, while the harm violent content does to our psyches is, at best, guesswork (or so critics would like to maintain).

The issue highlights the deep split we hold between mind and body. Somehow, whatever damage is done bodily is held as an egregious transgression, so minors cannot purchase cigarettes or booze (and correctly so). However, the content of mental products such as imagery is deemed, collectively and at a deep level, to be insubstantial. So while we can all agree that addicting a toddler to cigarettes is heinous, we cannot reach the same consensus when talking about addicting the child to violent imagery on the screen.

The defunct law defined violent imagery as one that depicts "killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being." Viewing and engaging interactively with such content creates habits of thought and habits of imagination. Make no mistake about it – whatever you think about a lot colors and influences your world view and your interactions with it. Violent video content habituates the mind to react in a certain predictable set of ways. We need hardly elaborate on the implied messages of such content, chief among which is that violence is a way of life and of conflict resolution. It is mental practice, just as efficacious as practicing one’s multiplication table.

So while the U.S. Supreme Court does not endorse minors’ freedom to choose to smoke and damage their lungs prematurely, it stated today that government has no free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which they may be exposed.

The nation's video game industry has about $10.5 billion in annual sales. More than two-thirds of U.S. households include at least one person who plays video games.