Back in October, the California Legislature passed, and Gov. Schwarzenegger signed, a law banning the sale or rental of “extremely violent video games” to children. The law ws supposed to take effect on January 1, 2006. Two video game industry groups sued, and U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the law, on freedom-of-speech grounds.
Not only can I not take sides on this, but I think all the sides have got it wrong.
1. The law’s proponents: I can’t side with the law’s proponents, because this law will have absolutely no effect on the problem they are trying to solve. I’m not saying kids should be playing “extremely violent video games” — but there is no reason to believe that this law will stop them. For one thing, those kids whose parents think they ought to have a game like this will just buy it for them, and those kids whose parents provide so little supervision that they can sneak the games in against their parents (weakly communicated) wishes will be able to obtain it anyway, perhaps by ordering it online. (No credit card? They can just buy a Visa, MC, or Amex “gift card” with cash.) Note that this is different from the case of laws prohibiting underage purchase of alcohol and tobacco — those products easily purchased and consumed away from home; video games have to be played somewhere where you can set up the equipment. That’s harder to hide. As for parents who don’t think their kids should have those games, and provide proper supervision — well, those kids already don’t have those games, so the law won’t affect them, either.
2. The judge: Sorry, but I can’t agree with the judge on this one, either. There is a right to “freedom of speech,” but no one who understands the English language (which may not, of course, include the federal courts) would conclude that a video game is “speech.” It may be a “form of expression,” but no one seriously believes that the First Amendment protects every “form of expression.” If you “express” your hatred of someone by strangling them, you will not be able to claim at your murder trial that this is allowed by the First Amdendment — no matter how much your desire to strangle that person was occassioned by your desire to disagree with what he was saying.
3. The video game industry: I can’t take the side of the video game industry, either. I haven’t seen any of the games in questions, but I have trouble endorsing the games if descriptions like this are accurate:
The ruling comes as the $25-billion global game industry faces sharp criticism for sex and violence in some of its titles. Much of the furor has focused on “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” a game that allows players to shoot cops, run over pedestrians and have sex with prostitutes.
Now, putting on my economist hat, I have to ask two questions:
First, I wonder if they are really making that much money off this stuff. If they didn’t make “extremely violent” video games, but made more “other” video games (“a bit violent”?) would their total sales of all video games drop? Or is a substantial percentage of the market for video games made up of consumers who, would buy no video games if they couldn’t get “extremely violent” ones?
Second, are we sure what effect violent video games have on behavior? Apparently, some people think if you do it in a video game, you’re more likely to do it in real like. But isn’t it possible that if you take out your agressions on video, you won’t feel as much of a need to do it in real life? Sort of like the advice to “punch a pillow” when you get so angry you want to punch a person? Having not seen the games in question, or any empirical study of their effects, I can’t say for sure, but I think we might want to consider the possibility that these games reduce, rather than increase, players’ propensity to violence in real life.