The U.S. Supreme Court this fall will consider arguments on a California bill seeking to ban the sale of "violent" video games to minors. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is considering whether to sign an amicus brief opposing the bill. He should absolutely do so.
This bill has been struck down as unconstitutional by lower courts. The state has already paid thousands of dollars, including reimbursements to the video game industry for their legal fees on this bill, ironically at a time when they are slashing social services to families and children in need.
I am a psychologist and video game researcher, so I follow these events with some interest. I was struck by numerous misstatements that surround this case regarding the research on video games and believe that Americans should fully understand that research before spending more money on this bill or others like it.
First, there is no consistent research indicating that video games cause increased violence. Studies of video game effects return weak and mixed results. Many studies are limited by poor methodology, and some scholars do seem eager to promote negative links, oftentimes ignoring inconsistent data from their own results. The most recent Surgeon General's report downplayed the influence of media violence, as did a recent Secret Service report on school shooters.
Claiming that the research consistently links video games with violence is simply dishonest. My own research, published in peer-reviewed journals in pediatrics, psychology and criminal justice, has found no links between violent video game playing and violent behavior. Other researchers, such as Cheryl Olson, Lawrence Kutner, Dmitri Williams, John Colwell, among others, have come to similar conclusions. Others, such as Patrick Markey, suggest that perhaps video game violence is like peanut butter, a harmless indulgence for the vast majority of children, but perhaps something to be avoided for a tiny minority of children, particularly those already disposed to pathological violent behavior.
Second, as video games have become more popular and more violent in the past two decades, violent crimes among both youth and adults have gone down to their lowest levels since the 1960s. Indeed, if there is a correlation between video game violence and violent crimes, it is in the opposite direction as that suggested by proponents of the California bill. I'm not saying video games have made the United States less violent; we don't know that. However, the waves of youth violence some anti-game activists have feared simply never materialized.
Third, the current Entertainment Software Ratings Board video game ratings have been found to be very effective in informing parents about the content in video games their children may play. These ratings are found on every video game box, are easy to understand and informative. These ratings have been endorsed by many state governments, the Federal Trade Commission and the Parents Teachers Association, among others. These ratings work well and leave parenting decisions in the hands of parents, not the government.
My understanding is that California is experiencing difficult financial times and has cut valuable services to needy individuals, including many families and children. It is ironic that the state would claim to champion the welfare of children by throwing money at a video game bill that will help no one, yet cut basic health, education and support services to countless children.
Cutting basic support to families runs the very real risk of increasing crime among the destitute. Allowing them to play video games does no harm. As a researcher very familiar with violent video games and their (non) effect on children, I urge Attorney General Shurtleff to sign the amicus brief against the California bill.
Christopher J. Ferguson is an associate professor of clinical and forensic psychology at Texas A&M International University. He has published numerous scholarly articles on topics related to youth violence, aggression and video game effects.