Saturday, December 03, 2005

Game Violence, part 2

A law in Illinois that regulated game sales, the Safe Games Illinois Act, just got shot down by an Illinois judge.

(Linked article found at the increasingly interesting Gamepolitics site.)

In reading his ruling, Judge Kennelly obviously grasped what games are about:

"Video games are one of the newest and most popular forms of artistic expression. They most resemble films and television shows by telling stories through pictures, text, and sound, but they also parallel popular books, such as the Choose Your Own Adventure series, which enable readers to make decisions about how the plot and characters will develop. Video games are generally designed to entertain players and viewers, but they can also inform and advocate viewpoints. They are therefore considered protected expression under the First Amendment. See Am. Amusement Machine Ass'n v. Kendrick, 244 F.3d 572, 579 (7th Cir. 2001)."

Regarding testimony on behalf of the Illinois video game law by Dr. Craig Anderson of Iowa State University, Judge Kennelly said:

"Dr. Anderson testified that playing violent video games is one activity that primes aggressive thoughts and teaches aggressive scripts... As a result of regularly playing violent video games, Dr. Anderson testified, these scripts or knowledge structures become 'chronically accessible' and ultimately become 'automatized.' The research underlying Dr. Anderson's testimony, however, does not support such a stark and sweeping conclusion."

There's more...

"Even if one were to accept the proposition that playing violent video games increases aggressive thoughts or behavior, there is no evidence that this effect is at all significant. Dr. Anderson provided no evidence supporting the view that playing violent video games has a lasting effect on aggressive thoughts and behavior – in other words, an effect that lingers more than a short time after the player stops playing the game."
I'd suggest reading the ruling itself- the judge completely destroys Anderson's argument, and (by extension) the bases of the "games make people crazy" argument.

The important part is the bolded one, though, because the key question is whether or not electronic games count as protected speech, not whether they're harmful, as there's no way that they could approach the level of harm that would warrant ignoring protections (as in, say, child pornography.) That they were clearly identified as such settles the issue.

It also makes sense. Any number of games' underlying plots could count as political speech through analogy. Some, like the popular Metal Gear Solid series, are very much overt about it. Even controversial games like Grand Theft Auto series, however, can have underlying themes and messages that could count. The ultra-controversial GTA: San Andreas draws heavily on films like Menace II Society and Boyz in the Hood, and makes many of the same points about urban violence and the abandonment of urban African-Americans and the communities they live in by society at large. It also supports the (admittedly controversial, but popular) idea that authenticity and family loyalty is more important than success and lawfulness. This led to one of the odder thematic transitions in gaming history, but the underlying message was reasonably clear.

(Don't get me wrong: GTA:SA isn't Citizen Kane, but it can easily be considered protected speech, and there are underlying themes.)

Finally, to those who'd wonder why this matters: it's clear by now that video games are the new proxy in the culture wars, and are the vehicle by which DLC Democrats are going to burnish their social-conservative cred. They're almost certain to be a punching bag in 2008, so this question of protection needs to be settled now. Fortunately, it seems that it has.

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