Video gaming goes to the Supreme Court

Video games: absorbing, interactive, potentially addictive, and, on many occasion, violent—and therein lies much of the problem. That’s because many experts believe the brutality our children are exposed to desensitizes them and contributes to aggressive and very unchildlike behavior.

Indeed, says the American Academy of Pediatrics, “There are some in the entertainment industry who maintain that 1) violent programming is harmless because no studies exist that prove a connection between violent entertainment and aggressive behavior in children, and 2) young people know that television, movies, and video games are simply fantasy. Unfortunately, they are wrong on both counts. . . The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children.”

For that very reason, California’s Senator Leland Yee—who also happens to be a child psychologist—sponsored a state ban of violent video games to minors back in 2005. In his view, more than any book, comic, or movie, these games are uniquely interactive with kids shooting, maiming, even decapitating human beings for amusement.

And he warns, “No parent can just play the game and know everything in it.” That’s because often the brutality comes only after hours of play and that, for instance, a player must first kill a cop before burning a woman.

Despite Governor Schwarzenegger’s signature, the law has never been enforced. That’s because, almost immediately, the gaming industry attacked it as infringing on its freedom of speech rights, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed, declaring it unconstitutional.

Now the case, Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, will be decided by the United States Supreme Court, and already it’s clear that there’s no easy agreement. For instance, Justices Alito, Roberts, and Breyer tend to agree that states have the right to pass laws prohibiting minors from purchasing “violent, sadistic, and graphic” video games. On the other side: Justices Sontomayor, Ginsberg, and Scalia.

A decision is expected in June.

You should also know that the California law would require that an “18” label—for minimum age—be affixed to the packaging of violent games, and that stores that fail to comply would be fined up to $1,000.

Meanwhile, though, the Entertainment Merchants Association and the Entertainment Software Association reminds us that Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) labels already exist, with six age-specific ratings:

1. EC (Early Childhood): suggests the content is suitable for children 3 and older and contains only age-appropriate material.

2. E (Everyone): suggests the content is suitable for those six and older and may contain minimal violence, some comic mischief, and/or crude language.

3. EC10 (Everyone 10 & Older): suggests the content is suitable for that age group and may contain more cartoon, fantasy, or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.

4. T (Teen): suggests the content is suitable for those 13 and older and may contain violent content, mild or strong language, and/or suggestive themes.

5. M (Mature): suggests the content is suitable for those 17 and older and may introduce more intense violence or language than those sold with the “T” rating.

6. AO (Adults Only): means the content is only suitable for adults and may contain graphic depictions of sex and/or violence—and are not intended for sale or rental to anyone under the age of 18.

Adequate? You decide. After all, some would assert that “minimal violence” and “crude language” might not be appropriate for a six-year-old or want their 13-year-old exposed to “violent content, mild or strong language, and/or suggestive themes.”

Plus, according to the Federal Trade Commission, in 2008 20% of minors are able to purchase “M” rated games; that figure stood at 43% three years earlier.

Moreover, researchers at Iowa State University found that about 8% of our 8- to 18-year-old kids “demonstrate pathological patterns of video-game play” and were more likely to have attention issues at school, lower grades, and more health problems than their non-pathological game-playing peers.

And a survey of 4,028 Connecticut high schoolers found that 6% of boys and 3% of girls reported signs of “problem” gaming, including “an irresistible urge to play, trying and failing to cut down on gaming, and feelings of tension that could only be relieved by playing.” Plus, 4% of the girls said they’d gotten into a serious fight, and 8% said they’d carried a weapon.

Then there’s the Saint Leo University’s analysis of 16 studies conducted between 1985 and 2004 on video games and aggression in children under 18. The conclusion: “Violent video games can increase aggressive behavior in children and adolescents, both in the short- and long-term, according to an empirical review of the last 20 years of research.”

An explanation is offered by Harvard University researcher Kimberly Thompson: “Video games differ from more passive mediums, such as comic books, in one important way. They are interactive. When you play a video game, you get feedback, you’re rewarded.” In fact, when she explored numerous popular teen-rated games, she found that “players were being rewarded for committing acts of violence. So basically, violence becomes just a part of how you move on in the game.”

The facts speak for themselves:

• According to the Entertainment Merchants Association, more than 2/3 of American households have at least one person playing video games.

• Video games pull in about $10 billion annually.

Meanwhile, a First Amendment Center survey of 1,033 adults, 18 and older, found that 86% said parents should have a “great deal” of responsibility in keeping video games out of their kids’ hands; 43% said video-game manufacturers and should be responsible. Only 28% said the government should be the responsible party.

That means parents must be accountable, vigilant, and well-informed by . . .

• Reading reviews online and in magazines before making any purchases.

• Test-driving, so to speak, purchased games.

• Keeping the rating labels in mind and deciding if the content is truly appropriate for their child, despite the recommendations of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.

• Finding better ways to occupy their children by engaging them in a variety of activities.

• Avoiding the temptation of handing over the Gameboy for some peace and quiet.

• Limiting play time—and requiring that all homework and studying be completed beforehand.

• Keeping the conversation going about entertainment media and the decisions being made.