Violent video games make kids violent. Or do they really?

A neighbor who’s about my age recently was telling me, with some level of appreciation, about a video game in his collection. “I’m not squeamish, but the first time I played it I couldn’t believe the amount of violence and blood.” He offered to lend it to me but warned, “This is definitely one that has to wait until your kids are in bed.” 

As coincidence or fate would have it, the very question of violent video games and children was taken up last month by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, it struck down a California law that banned the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. Violent video games, the court said, don’t fall within any of the categories that are legally denied First Amendment protection — such as obscenity, incitement and fighting words. 

In his majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia makes an interesting point in defense of violent fare served to children: “Certainly the books we give children to read — or read to them when they are younger — contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed,” and he cites stories in which doves peck out eyes, children kill a captor by baking her in an oven and a wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers until she falls dead. 

That comparison holds no water for some critics of the decision, including Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. In a commentary written for First Things, the archbishop recalled the 1999 Columbine school massacre and suggested it was just plain common sense that “video games can simulate, and potentially stimulate, violence in a far more intensely immersive way than traditional media. In the words of former army officer and author of ‘On Killing,’ David Grossman, the worst of these games are ‘murder simulators.’”

 “My point here is not that video games are bad,” Archbishop Chaput said. “My point is that when we too readily stretch an individual’s right to free speech to include a corporation’s right to sell violence to minors, we collude in poisoning our own future — and tragedies like Columbine are the indirect but brutally real proof of what I mean.” 

That seems pretty reasonable. But some people aren’t buying it and point to the available data: “If it is so obvious that video games have deleterious effects on young people,” one commenter wrote on the archbishop’s article, “there ought to be some halfway persuasive research to demonstrate what they are. Also, someone is going to have to explain why, if ‘common sense tells us that the violence of our music, our video games, our films and our television has to go somewhere,’ the rate of violent crime is at a 40-year low.” 

As for me? The whole discussion redoubles my commitment to make sure I’m aware of — and regulate — what my own children are exposed to.