A 'Compelling Interest' to Restrict Video Games Requires More Than Pediatricians' Prejudices


Writing in yesterday's New York Times, Cheryl K. Olson, co-founder of the Center for Mental Health and Media at Harvard Medical School, highlights the weakness of the scientific support for the California video game law that the Supreme Court overturned on Monday:

The state'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….

There's no evidence that [wielding weapons in games like Grand Theft Auto] leads to violent behavior in real life. F.B.I. data shows that youth violence continues to decline; it is now at its lowest rate in years, while bullying appears to be stable or decreasing….

Despite parents' worst fears, violence in video games may be less harmful than violence in movies or on the evening news. It does seem reasonable that virtually acting out a murder is worse than watching one. But there is no research supporting this, and one could just as easily argue that interactivity makes games less harmful: the player controls the action, and can stop playing if he feels overwhelmed or upset. And there is much better evidence to support psychological harm from exposure to violence on TV news.

In fact, such games (in moderation) may actually have some positive effects on developing minds.

As the court opinion notes, traditional fairy tales are chock-full of violence; a child experiences and learns to manage fears from the safety of Mom or Dad's lap. Similarly, a teen can try out different identities—how it feels to be a hero, a trickster, a feared or scorned killer, or someone of a different age or sex—in the safe fantasy world of a video game.

Olson, co-author of Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do, agrees that M-rated games "merit parental supervision," and she says more research is necessary to draw any firm conclusions about the effects of video games. But that is not the impression left by Justice Stephen Breyer's dissenting opinion in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, where he says "associations of public health professionals…have reviewed many of these studies and found a significant risk that violent video games, when compared with more passive media, are particularly likely to cause children harm."

Breyer cites a 2000 statement in which the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), joined by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association, claimed "over 1000 studies…point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children." When this statement was released, University of Toronto psychologist Jonathan Freedman had recently completed a review of the scientific literature, and he counted about 200 published studies that tried to measure the impact of TV or film violence on aggression. "Anyone who says 'over 1,000' obviously has not looked at the research," he told me. "It's so blatantly out of line." Nor was it correct to say that the research "overwhelmingly" confirmed the belief that watching fictional violence leads to violence in real life. "The majority of studies do not find evidence that supports the notion that television violence causes aggression," Freedman noted.

The AAP also said "the impact of violent interactive entertainment (video games and other interactive media) on young people…may be significantly more severe than that wrought by television, movies, or music." Since very little research had been done on video games at that point, this assertion amounted to nothing more than speculation. With the benefit of another decade's research, Cheryl Olson concludes that the truth may be precisely the opposite of what the pediatrician group suggested. 

Breyer also cites a 2005 resolution (PDF) in which the American Psychological Association (APA) said "comprehensive analysis of violent interactive video game research suggests such exposure…increases aggressive behavior, …increases aggressive thoughts,…increases angry feelings,…decreases helpful behavior, and…increases physiological arousal." As Justice Antonin Scalia noted in his majority opinion, the real-world significance of these modest short-term effects is unclear. Furthermore, "the same effects have been found when children watch cartoons starring Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner…or when they play video games like Sonic the Hedgehog that are rated 'E' (appropriate for all ages)…or even when they 'vie[w] a picture of a gun.'" The APA nevertheless suggested that "the practice, repetition, and rewards for acts of violence [in video games] may be more conducive to increasing aggressive behavior among children and youth than passively watching violence on TV and in films." Or maybe not.

Finally, Breyer cites a 2009 statement from the AAP, which nine years earlier already was warning the public, based on a gross misrepresentation of the evidence, about the supposedly well-established connection between fictional and real violence. Having watched with horror the proliferation of violent video games during the preceding decade, the AAP declared that "studies of these rapidly growing and ever-more sophisticated types of media have indicated that the effects of child-initiated virtual violence may be even more profound than those of passive media such as television." Again, or not.

As the Supreme Court (along with every appeals court to confront the issue) correctly concluded, this is far too weak a basis to establish the "compelling interest" required under the First Amendment to justify state-mandated restrictions on access to video games. The pattern that emerges from statements by the "associations of public health professionals" in which Breyer places so much faith is that they do not like violent entertainment and find violent video games especially distasteful, so they are eager to leap ahead of the evidence in claiming pernicious effects that have never actually been documented.

I discuss the video game case in my column today. Jib Fowles analyzed "the hidden conflicts underlying the campaign against violent TV" in a 2001 Reason article, which included a sidebar summarizing the state of the evidence.

NEXT: Al Gore's Ugly Rhetoric

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  1. In all of this I think there should be some note made of the fact that the state does not possess the legitimate power to make a law saying you can’t tell people that violence is good.

    That often gets lost in this debate.

    The state can make a law making it illegal to say, “Let’s undertake illegal violence against that particular named individual right over there!” but it cannot make a law making it illegal to say, “You know what? Violence is pretty cool!”

    So all of the studies would be meaningless anyway.

    Even if they proved a link, that would only be relevant for having laws preventing the publication of games that, say, let you practice killing named government officials. It would not be relevant in the case of a game dealing with a fictitious city, or a game where you shoot aliens.

    1. the state does not possess the legitimate power

      Since when does this matter?

      1. General Welfare
        Necessary and Proper
        Commerce Clause.

        (with props to sarcasmic)

      2. Well, even given the state’s vast usurpations, it does not currently pretend to possess that power.

        Under existing case law, even with all of its flaws, if I stand on a street corner in NYC preaching that violence is sexy, I can’t be arrested, but if I stand there shouting that we should all kill Mayor Bloomberg when he walks by, I can be.

        1. So you think it should be legal to shout that we should kill libertarians, as long as the speaker doesn’t name names?

          1. If there are no libertarians there who might be interpreted to be the target of your incitement, sure.

            It’s perfectly legal to have a conference where participants sit around and talk about how factory owners should be slaughtered and expropriated.

            In fact, I think that’s called “college”.

            But we don’t arrest everyone at college for incitement.

            If I can ask 17 year old’s to read Franz Fanon or Norman Mailer at college, I can ask them to play Grand Theft Auto at home.

            1. I don’t think I’m a threat to incite violence. I can barely incite students to use the Product Rule, let alone murder someone.

        2. In NYC, 2 or more people grouped together in public can be arrested for unlawful assembly.

    2. The state can make a law making it illegal to say, “Let’s undertake illegal violence against that particular named individual right over there!” but it cannot make a law making it illegal to say, “You know what? Violence is pretty cool!”

      The difference there is not really between violence toward named targets and violence in general, it’s between a proposal to do violence and a mere depiction of violence.

      A person who stands at a busy intersection and shouts “let’s smash some shit up” to the people walking by is not immune to charges of inciting violence just because he failed to mention a particular target.

      1. OK, that’s fair.

        Although I think in that situation the implication is that the person intends the listener to understand that he means the shit in the immediate vicinity. Kind of a verbal “pointed finger”.

        For incitement to exist you need a target that’s present for the incited to actually attack.

      2. I figured I would just look up the actual Brandenburg test:

        …held that government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless it is directed to inciting and likely to incite imminent lawless action. In particular, it overruled Ohio’s criminal syndicalism statute, because that statute broadly prohibited the mere advocacy of violence.

        For the lawless action to be imminent, it has to have a present target.

        I can’t possibly fail the Brandenburg test if I say, “Man, people in Moscow deserve a fucking beating!” while we’re standing in New York.

        I guess you’re right though in that’s more important than actual names.

        1. The idea is that the games make people generally violent and that is a harm the government can act against.

          Now if the games are speech and the First Amendment applies to kids then the law may not survive, but I tend to think Breyer and Thomas got this one correct. Kids should not have First Amendment rights superceding parental authority.

          1. Hmmm.

            Statement 1: A parent forbids their child from attending a gay rights march.

            Statement 2: A government forbids a child from attending a gay rights march.

            Who here thinks both statement 1 & statement 2 are acceptable scenarios?

            1. That’s not even as bad as this is.

              It’s more like:

              3. Government says no gay pride marches can be held unless march organizers can make sure no children will see them, and levies fines if kids to manage to see them.

          2. The idea is that the games make people generally violent and that is a harm the government can act against.

            That directly goes against Brandenburg.

            It also fails any possible logic test, since there are many socially and legally approved outlets for “violence”. The state trains people to kill every day. And the use of violence in self-defense is legally sanctioned.

            Having a more favorable attitude towards violence is not a harm the state can legitimately protect against, even under the definitions used by our quisling courts.

          3. I think the important issue was whether the state can (for the first time) restrict non-pornographic speech for the sake of the children. The video game industry (like the music and movie industries) polices itself–those age rating labels aren’t required by law, and the court deemed that adequate for the purpose of informing parents.

          4. The idea is that the games make people generally violent and that is a harm the government can act against.

            And, if you’d read the article, you would have learned that this particular idea is completely wrong.

            Kids should not have First Amendment rights superceding parental authority.

            But game merchants do, especially when the state is simply trying to label something ‘obscene’ in an end run around the first amendment.

  2. Why does the Supreme Court hate children ?

    1. Because they are all about 70 and the damn kids keep walking across their lawns.

  3. You know what? Violence is pretty cool!”

    Or as we used to joke, violence may not be the best answer, but it’s always an option.

    1. Or, as I tell my friends who want to tell me “violence doesn’t solve anything” – “well, it solved Nazi Germany and Hirohito’s Japan….”

      1. Not only did it solve those but it made them better places to live.

  4. Can someone who has an unedited version of the constitution (as mine has apparently been redacted) describe to me where in the first amendment the “compelling interest” exception is?

    I’m thinking it must come after the “no law” portion, since it is modifying that relatively straight-forward concept.

    1. This, and I would like to know where that exception to the other amendments resides also.

  5. This post leads me to wonder if it’s possible to correct the situation where the judiciary has to become a subject matter expert on every topic that faces them. Taking Jacob’s analysis at face value put’s Breyer’s analysis in an extremely bad light. Yet is it fair to assume that Breyer and his staff have the capacity to analyze the subject matter to the fullest degree?

    I think it’s just one of those things you just have to suck it up and live with. Entrusting so much authority to such a tiny set of individuals is bound to lead to such end results.

    1. Well, if you read the original source document, they don’t have to be subject matter experts. Does this law restrict speech? Yes? Well, then it goes away. Next case.

      Restrict the fed government to its proper limited sphere, and the SCOTUS really doesn’t have much to do.

  6. Breyer is an ass.

    Thomas’ dissent, which you’re ignoring here, doesn’t depend on any compelling interest test. This is not really a freedom of speech case, as no one is stopping the game designers from “speaking” in whatever manner they choose to consenting adults or to children whose parents consent to them being in the audience.

    1. I don’t have to care who’s in the audience.

      If you want your kid to not be in the audience, make that happen.

      1. So if you don’t lock your kid in your house outside school hours, you forfeit the ability to filter the speech your kid is exposed to?

        Kind of makes parental responsibility into a cipher, no?

        1. Yeah, actually, you do.

          You don’t get to control everything in life outside of your own property, and sometimes stuff people do on their own property is going to piss you off and undermine your parental authority if you let your offspring wander off your property.

          Too bad.

        2. Can you take this part of the discussion to the separate H&R post about Thomas’s opinion?

        3. So if you don’t lock your kid in your house outside school hours, you forfeit the ability to filter the speech your kid is exposed to?

          That sums it up nicely, yes. You do not get to filter what speech your children are subjected to outside of your property.

        4. When my kids became teenagers, I canceled cable TV so that I could prevent them from watching stuff I didn’t want them to see.

          But since I did not lock them into my house, I could not prevent them from watching cable TV at their friend’s houses.

          Nor would I have expected every retail outlet in the state to check their age before selling them a video game.

        5. Kind of makes parental responsibility into a cipher, no?

          No, you’re attempting to replace parental responsibility (which, AFAIC, includes a greater degree of explanation and interpretation than it does restriction) with government fiat.

          You forfeit no ability to discuss the outside world with your child – as you should be doing. Parental laziness, indeed.

    2. Thomas’s dissent was covered in another post. Thomas’s dissent is based on the same thing he said in the strip-search case, which is that he doesn’t really think that the Constitution grants minors rights separate from their parents.

  7. You needn’t take it any further, sir. You’ve proved to me that all this ultraviolence and killing is wrong, wrong, and terribly wrong. I’ve learned me lesson, sir. I’ve seen now what I’ve never seen before. I’m cured! Praise god!

    1. The things people say when forced to watch From Justin To Kelly.

      1. Network programmers have come a long way since the days of A Clockwork Orange.

      2. It’s both disturbing and impressive that you know that movie. You watch it for Justin’s lush, womanly curls, right?

      3. From Justin to Kelly would be more palatable with luvly luvly Van as the soundtrack

  8. I was at my coffee shop this morning getting my bagel and java, and lately there is a class full of college bible study folks who take up half the porch and don’t order anything. They then proceed to discuss how great the bible and god and all that are blahblahblah, and it’s annoying but easily ignorable.

    Today I over heard them talking about how kind and benevolent god is to his people in the old testament because they were the chosen people or whatever. I find this hilarious-especially for a class that is supposed to be studying the bible- to say this.

    The Old Testament could be a blueprint for the next Grand Theft Auto plot sequence if you look at how incredibly vicious and smiting ole Jehovah is.

    I have sent among you the pestilence … your young men have I slain with the sword, … and I have made the stink of your camps to come up unto your nostrils.–Amos 4:10

    Maybe we should censor the bible, you know, for the children.

    1. I know, I know, we are Your chosen people. But once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?

      1. Chosen for What, I’d like to know.

    2. Yeah, well, you should see what happened to the other guys. When was the last time you saw a Hittite or a Sumerian?

      1. Not only that, but when God wasn’t busy viciously (and I mean turn your head vicious) smiting those poor Egyptians and Hittites and Sumerians and Amalekites and so on and so on he wasn’t exactly keen on kids themselves.

        Exodus 21-

        21:15 And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.

        21:17 And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.

        So god was a little less protective of childrens rights than even Clarence Thomas was.

        Actually, maybe the bible would make an awesome video game.

      2. When was the last time you saw a Hittite or a Sumerian?

        I dated a Sumerian last year. It didn’t work out, though.

        OR…I was also thinking of going with this:

        When was the last time you saw a Hittite…?

        What do you mean? They overran Europe in the early 1940s, that wasn’t that long ago…

  9. Grand Theft Childhood is a really good book, if anyone is interested in the research on the area. I got it from one of my old research mentors who knows the author discussed in this blog post.

    In the book, they find little and conflicting evidence about the effects of violent video games on violence. However, if I remember correctly, they did find an overall increase in what I interpreted as “being an asshole”. I’d have reread it to be sure, but basically, there was some evidence for increased verbal aggressiveness and property destruction. Not at high levels though.

    1. Oh yeah, and kudos to Sullum for discussing something related to psychological research without going all crazy.

    2. Right, “verbal aggressiveness”. I love that one.

      I am starting to really despise the psychology pseudo-scientists.

      They don’t even pretend to not be trying to enshrine their political and cultural preferences as “health science”, any more.

      1. Verbal aggressiveness is things like swearing and taunting other children. Basically, that and property destruction fall into the category of just being more of a dick to those around you.

        And yet, as you can see from this summary, the authors concluded that basically, there is no harm.

        Not really sure how you’re getting offended by that. Or why you don’t think behavior is possible to study or evaluate.

        1. Behavior is certainly possible to study and evaluate. But the process of evaluation is always moral and/or political, and psychologists pretend that it’s scientific.

          I’m on my high horse about this these days because the psychobabble most prevalent in the news these days revolves around the Narcissism Test and the Psychopathology Test, both of which are comically politically and culturally weighted. The idea that this nonsense is dressed up as science is offensive to me.

          “Video games lead to increased ‘verbal aggressiveness’ in children” could be an objective statement with no political content, but it almost never would be delivered as such or quoted as such. The implicit message here is “Children who don’t act like hippies on a commune towards their peers are pathological, and we must identify the environmental factors that are inducing this terrible, terrible sickness in our kids!” If that’s not the implicit message, there’s no reason to study the matter in the first place.

          1. Verbal agressiveness was my characterization. Not a quote from the papers summarized in the book (afaik). It was things like taunting peers and swearing. I personally couldn’t care less about swearing, although I think little kids that are mean to other kids (I was one on and off, sadly) are just as much dicks as adults who do the same thing, if more common.

            I guess you could say that it is political, insofar as these things are perceived as negative behaviors. Keep in mind, however, that the study only shows that they do it – any interpretation is after the fact. The science is, generally speaking, apolitical in this case – the discussion or interpretation is where you get value judgements.

            Most pop-psych is awful. I’d say that 50-85% of academic psych research is really hard to characterize as political. There are alot of people in the field (and much much more so in sociology and cultural anthropology) that are just completely full of shit.

            The range of my estimation is so wide because in most of the journals I read there is the rare item I would consider to be more biased, but I suspect in the less prestigious journals (and therefor less read, by me as well as everyone) a lot of junk gets in.

  10. I think the research implicating dire results of violent video games is suspect too, but in our system I think it is the legislature that should decide when a compelling interest exists and is sufficiently supported.

    1. Oh, I think that it’s correct that the sort of things that turn on tiny details should be left up to the legislature. I just don’t believe that cases that actually involve Constitutional rights should turn on that kind of interest.

      But since you do, then you oppose Lawrence v. Texas because the legislature had determined that there was a compelling interest in outlawing sodomy?

      1. I think it would be extremely hard for a proponent of judicial restraint, an originalist or a textualist to endorse Lawrence v. Texas.

        Lawrence v. TExas is a little different in that the SCOTUS found it the interest not even rational. Certainly the research in question here can be less than conclusive without the idea that playing/watching violent video games leads to kids being more violent being irrational.

        1. I think it would be extremely hard for a proponent of judicial restraint, an originalist or a textualist to endorse Lawrence v. Texas.

          Yes, I think that Justice Thomas’s opinion in Lawrence v. Texas (“this law is uncommonly silly, I would vote against it, but it’s not unConstitutional”) is probably the correct textualist view.

          However, I was wondering what your view was.

          You’re right that the SCOTUS found a lack of a rational basis, but surely your same argument about a compelling basis applies to the legislature finding a rational basis.

    2. As long as it’s in one of the areas where they’re allowed to make law in the first place.

  11. violence in video games may be less harmful than actual, real-life violence in movies or on the evening news

    Just a suggestion…

  12. Also, compelling interest

    There is no such thing except in Statistopia. So keep it the FUCK out of US law.

    Too late?

  13. “Can someone who has an unedited version of the constitution (as mine has apparently been redacted) describe to me where in the first amendment the “compelling interest” exception is?

    I’m thinking it must come after the “no law” portion, since it is modifying that relatively straight-forward concept.”

    Absolutely. I view the entire concept of constitutional and just government that way — only that which it has powers to do, and nothing else — ever.

  14. A lot of these kinds studies have a egregious logic fail in their conclusions, one that those who are biased toward that conclusion simply can’t see. Yes, it’s a matter of correlation vs causing, but it’s so simple because the conclusion or even suggestion is easily falsifiable.

    Even if every single person in the study or sample is a criminal who plays violent games, that itself is NO evidence of causation. Why? Because what about all the other people who do play the same games and who do not commit criminal or violent acts?

    A -> B (A implies B; “if A, then B”) means that B is a necessary consequence of A. This is the rule for proving causation (or logical induction): that B must happen whenever A happens. To disprove it, you show that A can happen without leading to B.

    Thus: violent games -> real violent acts. You can never prove an implication (causation) by correlation, even with 100% correlation. BUT you can disprove such an assertion–very easily–with a correlation to the contrary.

    In other words, so what if 1000 out of 1000 people who commit violent crimes, assault, etc also played violent games? What about these 1000 people here who played the same games and remained absolutely fine and sane?

  15. Heck, if you want to talk about “compelling evidence” then one must also look to see if there is counter evidence such as:…..demons.ars
    which essentially argues for the cathartic effect it may have, the empirical evidence of which disproves claims of causality put forth by proponents of the age ban.

    The only way I’d support it is if the effects were like alcohol or any drug: you play the game and you can’t help but to move like a puppet, becoming violent until its effects wear off. In other words like I mentioned above, real causality.

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