November 26, 2010

Be Our Guest / John Garvey

Going postal about video games and their effect on our children

I suppose that we can get general agreement on the proposition that children should not kill, maim or sexually assault people.

In the world of video games, however, they can do all of these things virtually.

“Grand Theft Auto” famously allows players to commit murder and other violent crimes, like slapping around prostitutes.

“Postal II” invites players to set others on fire with napalm, beat police officers to death as they beg for mercy, and urinate on people to make them vomit.

Manufacturers of these games maintain that this is OK because the violence is virtual, not real.

The state of California sees it differently. It passed a law in 2005 forbidding the sale to minors of video games that depict gruesome acts of violence against people. (Parents can still buy the games for their children.)

Courts have issued injunctions against similar laws in other states. That is what happened here, in a case called Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association. California has taken the case to the Supreme Court where it was argued in early November.

The question for the court is whether the law is inconsistent with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Freedom of speech does not protect literally all kinds of speech. Obscenity—certain kinds of really sexually explicit speech—is carved out. But the court has not carved out a similar exception for violent speech.

There are other exceptions to the First Amendment that depend on the characteristics of the speaker or the audience. Children are the best example. We have different free-speech rules for them than we do for adults because they are still growing up.

Children are citizens, but they are not allowed to vote until they are 18. States can bar children from buying pornography, even if it is not legally considered obscene.

The government forbids radio stations from broadcasting some vulgar or profane language during hours when young people may be listening. Public schools can punish children for using racist epithets that are, in other contexts, protected by the First Amendment.

So there might be a legal basis for arguing that California can forbid sales to children.

Let us forget for a minute about the legal rules and think about moral ones.

There is, in the modern liberal view of human relations, a consequentialist view of evil that might be summed up in the phrase “no harm, no foul.”

According to this view, the husband who keeps a stash of pornography can still be the model of fidelity because what he does in his fantasy life isn’t really cheating, after all.

This approach ignores the real-life consequences of fantasy of the forbidden: brutality and violation of the participants, subtle erosion of marital affection.

The measurable effects are particularly evident with the young, who have a way of imitating in real life what they see others do and what they watch on television.

There are also effects on the soul—no less real, but invisible to the modern mind.

The philosophical disconnect between thought and action is a rejection of a more sophisticated classical and Catholic view of the human soul. Just as every act forms us for good or ill, so do our thoughts. We make ourselves worse each time we entertain evil as a possible option, even if we never have the opportunity to act on our malicious ideas.

This obviously applies when we engage the mind in evil for long periods for the sake of entertainment, and especially when the entertainment is so realistic and brutal.

Prolonged exposure to gratuitous violence is likely to have an even worse effect on children’s formation. The state has an interest here because children who play violent video games are learning to think and do bad things.

The Supreme Court will decide the case in June. Whatever it does, parents might want to think twice when shopping for video games this Christmas.

(John Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.)

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