Children, violence, and ethical video games

Should children and teens be allowed to purchase violent video games without their parents’ knowledge? The state of California said no in 2005, and passed a law that banned children under 18 from buying games in which players pretend to kill, maim, or sexually assault images of other people. But last month the U.S. Supreme Court declared that law unconstitutional — a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

Certainly, in these games, players pretend to be irresponsible, uncaring, disrespectful, unfair, and bad citizens – a clean sweep of the Six Pillars of Character. But does pretending to be unethical lead to violations of the Six Pillars in real life? The rationale for the California law assumes so, but some public health researchers, like Cheryl K. Olson, have argued that there is no evidence to back up that assertion, and that the Supreme Court’s decision was the correct one.

Other thinkers set aside the question of whether pretend violence leads to real violence, and take issue with the high court on a more fundamental ethical  basis. Psychologist and philosopher Brian Earp argues on Oxford University’s Practical Ethics blog that it is ethically inconsistent to allow a child to buy an extremely violent video game at the same time that the child’s access to milder content is regulated. He quotes Justice Stephen Breyer: “What sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting a sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her?”

Demonstrating just how thorny this question is, the two Supreme Court justices who voted against majority in the 7-2 decision are usually on opposite sides of the ideological fence. Justice Clarence Thomas is known for his conservative views, and Justice Stephen Breyer for his liberal ones. Yet both felt that California had the right to regulate children’s access to violent games — a good example of how ethical interpretations and political ideology do not always match up with each other.

Meanwhile, some video game designers and academics are working to create a world where it is just as easy to find games that promote ethical behavior as it is to find ones that don’t. In June, the 8th Annual Games for Change Festival awarded prizes for new games that address “current and pressing social issues,” or “teach specific topics in the classroom or in informal learning environments.” You can read about the nominees and the winners at the festival’s website.

What do you think? Is it ethically wrong to pretend to engage in unethical behaviors? Which principle is more important: the right to free speech, or the protection of minors from interacting with graphically violent images?

And: Do you or your students have experience with video games that are designed explicitly to encourage ethical thinking and behavior? Which ones would you recommend to other teachers and parents?

Photo by Sean Dreilinger. Used by permission.

13 thoughts on “Children, violence, and ethical video games”

  1. I disagree with the Supreme Court on their verdict and overturning the California law. However, I feel that parents need to do more and must do more to control what children bring into their homes. If we spend more family time together and less time doing stuff then we wont have many of these problems.

  2. I am always amazed how politicians and would be intellectuals take the common out of common sense. Children learn what they live. It’s as simple and straightforward as that. You will become the person you are going to be by participating in whatever activites take you there. If you participate in acts of kindness, fairness and love of fellow man, you will more likely to become that kind of person. If you surroune youself with violence, hatred and see your fellow beings as only something to gain power over then I guess you’ll be the same. You don’t plant corn and harvest carrots.

  3. there is money in kids, so people will sell to them, and lobby to sell to them. human rights go for kids as well as adults. kids have rights. the right to childhood. at the legal age they are fair game. before that the bigger society should step in to protect them from themselves, from the world, and from parents , some of whom sadly ” dont give a damn”

  4. A violation of First amendment- argument is a convenient cloak to white wash any thing and everything. Human minds are conditioned more by deeds than words. A child familiaring with any bad image tends to accept that bad as normal and harmless. iF IT IS THE ATTITUDE OF THE LIBERALS I WOULD LIKE TO BE ON THE SIDE OF RADICALS TO SAVE THIS GENERATION.

  5. For those people who don’t think violent video games do not impact behavior then answer me why do corporations spend millions of dollars for a 30 second commercial on the Super Bowl. Obviously they feel that they are going to get their money back and that is just 30 seconds. Kids who watch or play violent video games certainly watch them for more than 30 seconds.

  6. Once again it is the responsibility of the persons raising the child to teach the child why playing this type of game is wrong. We don’t need laws to protect our children. This is what parents, grandparents, and other involved with raising the child are supposed to do. Morals, ethics and good common sense all start at home, but now our children are baby sat by the schools with no real learning, then go home to a sitter who is being paid to watch them or even worse babysat by the unlimited channeled TV or Internet. Parents come home exhausted and tired from trying to earn enough to buy what they think they need to buy and send the kids off to bed. The moral and ethical upbringing of our children are left to the sidelines.

  7. There was a study done several years ago in Canada where the kids were exposed to television for the first time (rural areas) and the amount of violence increased dramatically. Someone needs to do more research as it will show violence begets violence.

  8. The double standard here is amazing. “Adult” magazines are not allowed to be purchased by minors, movies rated G, PG, PG13, R and X are rated for a reason (although some PG13 s/b rated R). If a child needs parental permission to view a 2 hour movie, and can’t even purchase “adult pictures”, they should certainly need parental permission to view unending violence, sex and unsavory content on vidio games. And the comment that it’s the kids who are being marketed to because they have the money slayed me, although true, sadly. Where are they getting the money??? Heaven knows an allowence does not cover the cost of most video games. The power of the court has gotten out of hand! BUT, it is the parent’s responsibility to monitor; where are the parents? Working to support a “lifestyle” while their children are left to fend for themselves, for the most part. So sad!!! I’m not even sure how the 1st Amendment plays into this question: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

  9. I disagree earnestly with the supreme court. How can we as a society say it’s ok to prevent children from buying certain magazines or from seeing certain movies but its not ok to prevent the from purchasing certain video games. The video game arena seems to be the one place that were afraid to harness the reigns on things. Violence is one thing in video games, if its directed in the way of good. Who doesn’t want to be the guy/girl that by heroic events and overcoming insurmountable odds saves the world. But when that violence is misguided to hurt and kill innocent people or to act in a senseless way, then it becomes disruptive. The same goes for the language and sexual behavior that have become prevalent in these games. They cast an unreal image of the world to gamers. As adults we can sort through it and say that is not real. But a child is impressionable and can struggle with the lines of real and unreal. We as a society have the ethical responsibilities to safeguard our children against not just the video game arena but what is real and ethical versus what is make believe and evil. As I said I’m not sure why this area gets a pass most of the time or is above the law. After all it feels ironic that the violence that has become so prevalent among young people seemingly started with the video game era.

  10. Did you ever notice how you respond physically to a scary movie, even when you know it’s fake? Sweaty palms, tense muscles, hair on end, ready for fight or flight. That’s because the brain responds the same to real or imaginary threats. So how is it that children who barely know the difference between fantasy and reality can logically sort out that imitating video violence isn’t the way to behave? How many crazies will it take before we figure out the connection, and give our children back the innocence of their childhoods? We ALL need to protect those who are vulnerable, shame on the Court for being so foolish and putting us all at risk!

  11. This may be a little off topic but it does involve CC and the first amendment. I am a volunteer coach for a youth rec sports league. The league has bylaws that suggest members adhere to CC “guidelines”. They don’t publish the guidelines on their website nor do they distribute them in any way or ask members to sign anything saying that they understand the guidelines and will comply. I am being charged with a CC violation for being “disrespectful” to a league organizer by expressing my opinion that the individual is ignorant, incompetent, and a liar. Without going into too much detail, I believe that I have “just cause” to formulate that opinion. The bylaws of this league state all coaches are to be given first aid kits. It never happened. I made two requests to the contact person for information regarding the first aid kits. Both were ignored by that person. I went to the person above that person and that person didn’t know either. It took 10 days, in which we had 3 practices without a first aid kit, to get any kind of answer. To me it was completely unacceptable and I made my opinion known. Now I’m the one who is facing a CC violation for being “disrespectful”?? It’s little wonder that this league has a very hard time getting volunteers to coach. They want you to follow CC guidelines without even informing you what they are?? But they can selectively adhere to their own bylaws and put the safety of the kids who play at risk? You can’t get more hypocritical than that…
    I welcome any and all feedback. for more info

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