A History of Violence

In the March 1994 reason, screenwriter David Link took apart the common claim that TV shows glorify violence. “On television in particular,” he wrote, “the overwhelming number of violent acts are committed by someone clearly identifiable as an antagonist.” Noting that TV shows are less violent than classic works of literature, Link argued that critics attack it “not because it is the most violent medium but because it is the most vulnerable.”

Since then, moralizing legislators and professional worriers have found a more vulnerable whipping boy: violent video games. In 1997 the first of the best-selling Grand Theft Auto games appeared, offering players the opportunity to pimp, murder, and steal their way to the top of a metropolitan food chain. Legislators started taking notice. Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) attacked Grand Theft Auto in a 2005 speech, warning that “children are playing a game that encourages them to have sex with prostitutes and then murder them.” That same year, citing Grand Theft Auto and other titles, California legislators passed a law banning the sale to minors of “patently offensive” video games featuring violence.

Last June the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that law, ruling that California had failed to show it was narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest, as required for restrictions on constitutionally protected speech. In particular, the Court said, California had not demonstrated a link between violence in video games and violence in real life.

Writing for the 7-to-2 majority, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said the state relied too heavily on inconclusive, methodologically flawed studies by a handful of researchers. “These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them,” wrote Scalia, because “they do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively.” At most, he said, they show “some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects” whose practical significance is unclear.

As public health researcher Cheryl K. Olson observed in a June New York Times story, California’s case “was built on assumptions—that violent games cause children psychological or neurological harm and make them more aggressive and likely to harm other people—that are not supported by evidence.” Olson said her own research indicates that kids know the difference between video games and reality, a point bolstered by recent crime trends. Even as video games have become more violent, she noted, “F.B.I. data show that youth violence continues to decline.”

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