by Bill Taverner
Hi, my name is Bill T, and I have indulged in violent video games. I don’t usually start off essays with a confession, and I realize this forum is not Violent Video Games Anonymous. Indeed, it has been several years since I last carjacked and bludgeoned my way to a successful all-nighter in Grand Theft Auto, so I don’t have a compelling reason to confess except that I figured if I’m going to criticize violent video games, I should at least admit what fun I’ve had playing them. And they are fun. That’s why I stopped. There was a cognitive dissonance in my mind that could not reconcile my purported sense of social justice with the thrill I experienced beating the hell out of virtual characters and blowing things up. Since I’ve never wanted to be a “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of parent, I quit, cold turkey, and began lecturing on the sexism and teachable moments implicit in video games that are so popular among young people.
Today, the Supreme Court decided to strike down a California law that had banned the sale of violent video games to minors. To paraphrase that without the use of double negatives, the Court said that retailers may sell violent video games to minors. My reaction depended on which part of me was asked. As a parent of two children, one of whom is a teenager, I thought this was the wrong decision, since children’s exposure to violence is probably not a good thing. So that part of me thumbed my nose at the Court. However, I was quickly rebuffed by the free speech advocate in me, which applauded the decision and reminded me that government has no business censoring private matters. Leave it to parents and guardians to educate their children and enforce rules that restrict unhealthy messages. Then there was the skeptic in me who thought, “Something’s just not right here. What has the Supreme Court said in other matters of censorship among minors?”
My inner skeptic is always the wisest.
In prior cases, the Supreme Court handed down decisions forbidding the sale of materials that contain nudity to minors. So here is the quandary: selling a copy of Playboy or Playgirl to a minor will land a retailer in the slammer. But, the same vendor is free to sell a mega-violent video game to a minor, equipping him* with the ability to perform virtual decapitations, light pedestrians on fire, and more! His virtual self may rape at will, and bludgeon until a pool of virtual blood forms below the victim and the paramedics arrive. And then he may take a rocket launcher to the ambulance. All of this is perfectly legal to sell to minors. However, it instantly becomes illegal if the person whose virtual head you’re chopping off happen to be naked. I mean, we want our avatars to be treated with some respect, right? It would be obscene and offensive to chop off someone’s head when they’re nude.
The Court’s decision on video games is an extension of the curious messages we receive in other forms of media, including television and its questionable and inconsistent regulation by the Federal Communications Commission (as “Family Guy” character Peter Griffin calls them, “The Freakin’ FCC”
). Our nation wrings its hands at a split-second shot of a performer’s nipple, and the FCC comes down full force with unprecedented fines for utterances of “the f-word”. However, the same regulatory bodies remain completely uninterested in televised violent imagery. While I may be concerned about whether my son will lose his lunch while flipping past a realistic autopsy on a prime time crime drama, the Freakin’ FCC expends its efforts investigating the harm done by the World Series star who burst, in elation, “World fucking champions!” on national television. The Supreme Court emphasized the need to crack down on such celebratory moments when it decided, just two years ago, that television stations could be fined for airing fleeting expletives.
The hypocrisy of the most recent Court decision is rooted in a society that assumes sexuality in all its manifestations is bad. As the late, great sexuality educator Sol Gordon lamented, “There is something wrong with a society that teaches ‘Sex is dirty. Save it for someone you love.’” Sex, sexuality, and the human body are all beautiful things that exist in nature. Yet the Court has issued two resounding verdicts: guilty on sex; not guilty on violence, despite its always harmful and often obscene nature. Sexual content must be strictly regulated; violence is just fine.
In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer eloquently explained the contradictory nature of today’s Court decision with prior decisions on minors and censorship:
“What sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting the sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her? What kind of First Amendment would permit the government to protect children by restricting sales of that extremely violent video game only when the woman — bound, gagged, tortured and killed — is also topless?”
* Don’t call me out on sexism here. According to a 2009 Nielsen study, teen boys play video games at a rate more than five times higher than teen girls.
Bill Taverner, MA, CSE, is the director of The Center for Family Life Education, the nationally acclaimed education division of Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey. He is also the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Sexuality Education.