NPR Discussion on Violent Videogames

NPR’s Diane Rehm turned her focus to violent videogames yesterday in a radio show that featured California State Senator Leland Yee, Grand Theft Childhood co-author Dr. Cheryl Olson, the Entertainment Software Association’s (ESA) Richard Taylor, Eugene Volokh, Professor of 1st Amendment Law at the UCLA Law School and researcher Craig Anderson from Iowa State University.

The nearly hour-long show began by discussing the Supreme Court’s decision to review California’s violent videogame law with Yee, before moving on to Anderson, who mentioned his recent research. Rehm then indicated that she watched “a bit” of Grand Theft Auto in order to become familiar with the subject, before asking Taylor to explain how popular “these games” are, who is playing them and what the effects are.

Taylor replied, “The average videogame player is 35 years old,” and explained that game makers do create some media for adults, much like film makers do. Rehm then asked Taylor to differentiate between the interactive aspect of games and the passive nature of movies. “That’s one of the reasons (the interactivity) it (videogames) is the fastest growing form of entertainment,” he answered.

Olson was asked how she viewed the connection between violent videogames and aggressive behavior in children. “This is an incredibly complex issue that’s not sound bite friendly,” she answered, before detailing results from a study of middle school kids which showed that Grand Theft Auto was the most popular game among 13-year old boys, and second among girls.

“On the one hand, you could say, ‘Oh My Lord what does this mean for our society?’” said Olson. She continued, “Well, given that youth crime is down, youth violence is down… it (games) must be meeting healthy needs for kids…”

Volokh was then queried on how the First Amendment relates to violent videogames. “That’s a complicated question, in part because the Supreme Court hasn’t given us a lot to work with in this area,” said Volokh. He continued, “The animal cruelty decision is actually not terribly helpful here… and the specific holding of that case is not going to be terribly relevant here.”

He continued:

One thing I do think the Court is going to say is that violent videogames, excuse me videogames generally, are a medium that is protected by the First Amendment. I think the Court will recognize that it’s a medium, for among other things, telling stories, sometimes for sending political messages, artistic expression and the like.

Likewise I think the Court would have no trouble concluding that violent videogames are, generally speaking, also constitutionally protected. The really tough question here, is to what extent will the Court be willing to say, when it comes to communication of this material to minors, the government may essentially impose something like the movie rating system, although this would be legally binding…

The Court has said in the past, that when it comes to sexually-themed material, including material that is constitutionally permissible as to adults, it is OK for the government to say ‘Look, you can sell Hustler magazine, but you can’t sell it to children.’ Especially the fact that there’s an exception here for parents conveying material to their children, suggesting that this is kind of a way of increasing parental controls at the expense of the free speech rights of children.

Later in the broadcast, in response to a listener comment that videogames are not to blame for a perceived increase of aggressiveness in today’s youth, Anderson responded, “When you eat a bag of potato chips, you don’t suddenly feel your arteries hardening.”

Olson then jumped in, offering her take on desensitization among kids:

If a kid plays a game over and over, or sees a scary movie over and over, they probably will say ‘Oh, that’s silly,’ or might even laugh at the over-the-topness of it. But if you see that same child; their friend gets hit by a car or gets injured on the sports field, they react differently.

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