About this time last year, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a constituent from Watertown approached me with concern about the role that “first person shooter” games play in training people to commit acts of violence. We developed and, with the support of Representatives Hecht and Lawn from Watertown, filed legislation to study the problem.
Most adults share the common sense concern that it can’t be healthy for anyone to sit around rehearsing murder in video games for hours a day. The concern jumped back into the news recently after the release of the recent investigative report on the Sandy Hook killer.
CBS commentator Jon Keller used the occasion to call for a voluntary boycott of games involving the killing of children — a boycott I would support. Coverage of the investigative report in the New York Times suggested that the killer had been “enthralled by violent video games including one called ‘School Shooting’.”
In the report, however, it’s actually unclear how much time the killer spent on violent video games. The report does say that “He played video games often, both solo at home and online. They could be described as both violent and non-violent” (page 31). There is considerable evidence that he was truly enthralled with Dance Dance Revolution — an athletic game that is all about dance and not at all about revolution or other violence (pages 25, 32-33).
The Sandy Hook case offers one more example of the difficulty in isolating the role of violent video games in generating actual violence: Alienated people may, among other lonely activities, play violent video games, but enjoyment for violent games goes well beyond those who are future mass murderers — the Facebook page for Black Ops II has almost 15 million likes. A survey in Norway showed that 56.3% of the respondents used video games on a regular basis and that — surprise — “Gender (male) and age group (young) were strong predictors for problematic use of video games.” Another surprising study of adult video gamers showed that single marital status is among the strong predictors of high use. Scholars are conflicted about connection between games and violence.
The Supreme Court recognized the unclarity of the evidence in its 2011 decision in Brown versus Entertainment Merchants Association. The court first of all confirmed that video games are a form of expression subject to free speech protections — “we have long recognized that it is difficult to distinguish politics from entertainment and it is dangerous to try.” Since they are a protected form of expression, a government cannot regulate content of video games unless the government can “identify an ‘actual problem’ in need of solving” and show that “curtailment of free speech must be actually necessary to the solution.” The court concluded that the evidence “is not compelling”. The “studies do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (emphasis in original)”. The government’s expert in the case admitted that the “effect sizes” from exposure to violent video games were comparable to those from watching Road Runner cartoons.
Despite the ambiguity of the evidence, many adults have intuitive concern about kids rehearsing violence, especially in its sicker forms. To create a vehicle to learn about the issue in Massachusetts, we filed Senate 168. I have little expectation that our study will marshal evidence that would support new government restrictions on sale of games — I agree with the Supreme Court that we should insist on very clear evidence before restricting speech — but the study might lead to a range of other responses. It might fuel Jon Keller’s boycott proposal, or it might lend support for another bill I’ve cosponsored concerning media literacy in schools. Perhaps we don’t want to make new rules, but we may want to do more to help parents help their kids to make healthy entertainment choices.
So far, the bill has been an interesting ride. After filing, I was immediately visited by entertainment industry lobbyists, who warned me solemnly about their free speech rights. Now the industry has started an email campaign calling the bill’s language “inflammatory.” Well-designed video games can play a very positive role in education. The industry should welcome a study that might shed light on what their games teach children.
As always, I’d welcome your thoughts!