Friday, December 17, 2010

The Psychological Ramifications of the EMA Case

The law states that violent video games are ones 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 manner that's "patently offensive," appeals to a person's "deviant or morbid interests," and lacks "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." ~ Gregory Leporati

On November 2nd, 2010, the US Supreme Court heard a case named Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association. The case regarded a challenge to California’s currently held violent video game laws, respectively AB 1792 and 1793. Which were created by State Senator Leland Yee after the controversy regarding the Hot Coffee mod to Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a fan-created hack that allowed the player to have sex with a female avatar. Under the challenged laws, any video game that would allow for violent acts to be preformed onto a human character would be cordoned off in a separate section of a store, require ID to purchase and bear a two-inch sticker warning of dangerous content, essentially placing video-games on the level of guns, pornography and alcohol. During the case itself, Justices Scalia, Sotomayor, Roberts, Kennedy and Ginsberg expressed skepticism towards Zack Morazzini, who represented California’s objections towards violent games. The Justices agreed that the laws posed a serious infringement on the First Amendment rights of game developers and that exceptions should not be made for content accessible by both children and adults, Kennedy stated that “You are asking us to create a -- a whole new prohibition which the American people never -- never ratified when they ratified the First Amendment." Nonetheless, Justice Breyer pressed the EMA representative on the psychological effects of violent games on children, questioning the notion that a First Amendment exception should be made for a different medium. Running With Scissor’s Postal 2 was brought up for discussion, a poorly selling sadistic action game which allowed for the maiming and abuse of children. The EMA took the position that “there is not a violence exception to the First Amendment for minors and there should not be". Ultimately, the courts were skeptical of the California video-game laws, believing them to be a First-Amendment violation, nonetheless, the psychological effects of gaming left the members ambivalent, as neither side had any solid evidence pointing to whether or not video games were indeed harmful to minors.


I chose to cover this article because it involves me personally as both an avid video-game player and an indie game developer. Writing an open-letter to Leland Yee ( a few weeks ago, I protested against California’s attempt at regulating an artistic community that I am very much part of. There is a considerable lack of solid evidence pointing at a causal relationship between video-game violence and real-world violence, leaving the relationship entirely speculative. In fact, surveys indicate that youth violence has decreased significantly in the past fifty years, while this may not be a causal relationship it is clear that video game consumption has rose in the last fifty years. While there is undeniable that media of any kind has an effect on its audience, and that young children are especially easily influenced by media, the notion that video games are more harmful than other media, say children’s cartoons or children’s marketing, is extremely shaky. For one, the belief that the play of first-person shooters leads to school shootings is entirely false and a gross oversimplification of social problems facing troubled adolescents, it is proven that a variety of other factors, such as parental and peer relationships (or lack thereof) are the causal factors of violent behavior in children, not game consumption. In addition, if a causal relationship were to exist, the rampant popularity of the Halo and Call of Duty franchises would have lead to the total annihilation of society, as no such thing happened, the causal relationship cannot exist. Furthermore, should the Supreme Court side with California and treat video games like pornography, guns and tobacco, games will essentially become a taboo hobby, their consumption being frowned upon socially. Having played games since three and recently helped in the foundation of an indie studio, I cannot allow this to a happen. I have recently received an email back from Senator Yee’s office, expressing interest in a meeting to discuss the matter and the ramifications that the case entails.


Leland Yee, the California State Senator who originally created AB 1792 and 1793, is a child psychologist. A considerable portion of the organizations filing amicus briefs in support of California cite the possible adverse effects violent games might have on children, the rest believing violent games to be mere obscenity. However, the professional psychological community is entirely split on the subject. Dave Grossman, a West Point psychology professor, holds that game publishers are essentially training children to use weapons and are systematically desensitizing them to violence, calling first-person shooter games “murder simulators”. On the other hand, child psychologist Lawrence Kutner wrote in his book Grand Theft Childhood that his studies indicated that children who did not play video games were statistically more likely to participate in violent behavior. A Texas A&M study published just this year concluded that there was no link between violent game consumption and school shootings. Nonetheless, another Iowa State University article linked video-game play to increased levels of aggressive behavior and thought. The lack of consensus within the psychological community leaves the veracity of the notion that game violence causes real violence questionable, and thus, requires further research and understanding to reach a compromise, if one is needed, between game developers and concerned parental organizations. Ultimately, if there is indeed an explicit link, the question will come down to whether or not such behavioral affects would justify First Amendment exceptions.

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