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.