Almost 30 years ago, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) – led by Tipper Gore and a few other “Washington wives” – launched a campaign against explicit rock music lyrics. Such lyrics, the PMRC argued, promoted sex, drugs, and violence. In 1985, Dee Snider, the lead singer of the band Twisted Sister, testified before Congress on the issue (video is here, and transcript is here).
This debate seems to be happening all over again, this time in the context of regulating violent video games. Advocates of regulation claim that these games incite violence, like the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
To be sure, the Sandy Hook shooting was a tragedy, and we should definitely have a discussion about how to prevent similar incidents in the future. But the efforts to regulate video games are reminiscent of the politician’s fallacy: “We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this.”
In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors violated the First Amendment. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that scientific studies do not provide credible evidence of a causal link between video games and violent behavior that might justify a “compelling government interest” in regulating their sale to minors:
They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.
He further pointed out that most of us have no problem exposing children to violent narratives in the form of fairy tales:
Certainly the books we give children to read – or read to them when they are younger – contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed. As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers “till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.” … Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves … And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven.
This “culture of violence” continues in high school and college:
Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake … In the Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch, lest they be skewered by devils above the surface … And Golding’s Lord of the Flies recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other children while marooned on an island.
The more general question of whether violent entertainment encourages actual violence dates even further back than the 1980s debate over song lyrics. For example, as Justice Scalia points out, “Many in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s blamed comic books for fostering a ‘preoccupation with violence and horror’ among the young, leading to a rising juvenile crime rate.”
That’s not to say that violent video games, books, movies, or fairy tales are good for kids (or adults). The real question is whether we want government bureaucrats making these decisions for us. As an even bigger authority on the First Amendment, Dee Snider, told Congress, “[I]t is my job as a parent to monitor what my children see, hear, and read during their preteen years. The full responsibility for this falls on the shoulders of my wife and I, because there is no one else capable of making these judgments for us.”