Over the last several decades, video games have become an accepted, and to varying degrees integral, part of many young lives, and the debate surrounding their potentially harmful effects have sustained for nearly as long. The Supreme Court’s decision on Monday, June 26th, striking down a California law, banning the sale of violent video games to minors, as unconstitutional, represents an important development in this debate, if only to establish video games as so-called “protected media,” akin to movies, music, and television shows, with literary merit of their own that allows them full first amendment protection. In the majority’s opinion, the California law’s intent to insulate children from violence and death did not alter the application of constitutional free speech. “Disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote.
For many horrified parents, “disgust” may be an apt word indeed. Since the video game industry first realized the vast marketing potential in gratuitous violence with Mortal Kombat — a 1992 game in which players “finish” their opponents in (for the time) spectacularly gruesome fashions — there has been only one trajectory for the levels of gore, bringing us such video game franchises as the Grand Theft Auto series, and Postal 2, a game cited numerously in the defense of the California law, which seems to revel in the very gratuity and meaningless death which video games have made their province. When considering that video games are played overwhelmingly by young people, perhaps California lawmakers could be forgiven for concluding that more explicitly protective measures were excusable.
Psychologists have long warned that playing violent video games can lead to increased aggression, and may be more harmful than violent television or movies because of the interactive nature of game play, especially considering the increasingly realistic worlds, and convincingly human reproductions employed. Subsequent studies seem to have repeatedly upheld this judgment. For young children and adolescents, still discovering the ways of the world and learning right from wrong, the psychological effects could be especially pernicious. The values of the lawless virtual reality they enter into every day, could come to substitute for those of the real world. Indeed, there are some, perhaps surprising, therapeutic uses for the more violent video games which would seem to back this up: hyper-realistic military first-person shooters, such as Full-Spectrum Warrior, have become integral parts of some PTSD psycho-treatments for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Presumably, by playing these games, and re-immersing themselves in the death and destruction they survived and left behind, the parts of the soldiers’ minds that enjoyed the thrill of combat were able to practice these disturbing pleasures virtually rather than repress them, or worse, feel compelled to recreate them in everyday life. The soldiers were empowered to relive traumatic events in a safe, secure setting, and, crucially, could turn the game off at any time should negative responses or flashbacks result, as they sometimes did.
There is something disquieting in all of this. Human fascination with death and violence, of course, is long established, explored in every manner of literature, film, and artistic expression. Video games, a relatively new medium, offer an entirely fresh, and arguably less “artistic”, or “enlightening”, form of diversion — in effect, vicarious living, an opportunity to actually “be” the Arnold Schwarzenneger killing bad guys. And it’s fun. Nobody plays a video game to learn something about the world. Rather for the thrill, the challenge, and the competition (perhaps why they remain an overwhelmingly male activity). The trouble comes when the values, or lack thereof, in the virtual world begin to substitute those of the real world, a risk more pronounced for younger people than older, and for the depressive than the emotionally secure. This is the basis of desensitization: death and mayhem become to seem less of a big deal — a good thing, perhaps, for soldiers grappling with compromised morality, but dangerous in the extreme for already malleable personalities. Perhaps the real lesson is that we, as a human society, have yet to find that place where our darker inclinations can be exorcized safely, in the open, with no shame. Until we do, the market for vicarious, gratuitous death will probably grow no smaller.
[This article originally appeared on SevenPonds, and cannot be reproduced without permission. Thank you.]