Issue 113, Winter 2010-11

By Joan E. Bertin

Many of you are familiar with our concerns about ratings. They’re highly subjective, they reflect value judgments about content, and they reduce complex material to a few letters and numbers. Still, they serve a useful purpose for some consumers. The ratings developed by the Entertainment Software Rating Board let people know something about the game in the box before they buy it. The MPAA ratings help movie-goers decide which films they want to see. The age guidelines are just that – guidelines. Consumers are free to disagree with or ignore both.

However, there’s a catch: ratings also invite censorship. The California video game case discussed at length in this issue is a case in point. Once something is rated as adult fare, as most violent video games are, many legislators develop an apparently irresistible urge to criminalize its sale to minors. When this happens, the rating is no longer informational, voluntary and benign; once it becomes mandatory, enforced by criminal penalties, there’s a serious threat to core First Amendment principles, which prohibit the state from suppressing speech because of hostility to its content or message.

The state and its supporters urge the Court to make an exception in this case. The brief filed by Common Sense Media, an organization that promotes ratings for everything from video games to books and advocates for restrictive laws like California’s, sets out the argument: “juvenile minds are different” and society’s interest in “the development of their character supports shielding them from negative influences.” Violent video games are such a “negative influence,” the brief claims, because they “can increase aggression” and are “related to increases in aggressive thoughts.”

Pseudo-scientific arguments about children’s immaturity and vulnerability are familiar in the history of censorship. In the 19th Century, Anthony Comstock sought to ban “dime novels,” which he claimed would lead youth into a “career of crime.” In the 1950’s, Fredric Wertham claimed “a significant correlation between crime, comics reading and the more serious forms of juvenile delinquency.” Movies, television, and popular music became the subject of similarly exaggerated claims about children’s susceptibility to dangerous and corrupt influences. The latest culprit: video games.

Are kids really at risk from violent video games? Scores of appellate judges and the 82 scientists and media scholars who filed a brief in this case say there’s no evidence of it. Are parents so out of touch with their kids that ratings enforced by criminal penalties are necessary? Not according to the FCC, which found that 85% of parents are involved in the decision to purchase a video game, and that video game hardware includes controls that are 100% effective in blocking access to rated material.

There is, as Justice Brandeis observed, a fundamental “right to be let alone.” To grow into thinking adults, children need to explore the world, be exposed to a variety of ideas, and learn from experience. Pity the children who are so protected from “negative influences” that they can’t even read about being bad, or play a game that allows them to imagine what it’s like to do something they’d never do in real life.

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