Today I rented a car so that my family could at long last scatter the ashes of my beloved mother—a woman who blessed me with many great virtues and vices like my love for reading and learning, and my contrarian nature (I owe my father much debt in these areas too). As always when I rent a car, I take the opportunity to listen to the best NPR radio station in the United States: FM 88.5/88.3 KQED. Luck was with me, because I got to hear Nina Totenberg discussing a Supreme Court decision. No one comes close to her reporting on the high court—or any court: she understands the issues involved completely and is able to communicate them with unparalleled clarity. If even a small percentage of political reporters had her talent, we would live it a much different, and better nation.
She discussed the Court’s overturning of the 2005, California law that imposed a $1,000 fine on retailers each time they sold a violent video game to a minor. The case was decided differently than we have come to expect. The majority consisted of Antonin Scalia (who wrote the opinion), Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan—strange bedfellows indeed. Concurring with the majority, but writing a more narrowly defined decision were Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Clarence Thomas dissented, although—as usual—his argument was more home-spun wisdom than law. Basically, he said we’ve always treated kids different and anyway, the Constitution is not meant to apply to children—an interesting, but highly questionable observation. Stephen Breyer made what seemed to me the best argument: this is not a substantive infringement on free speech—these are kids after all. (Breyer’s argument was much more complex than this, but that was the core.)
Over the last few years, I have had the opportunity to watch my niece’s boyfriend and his friends play a number of games of the kind under discussion. In general, my thoughts about these games have centered around their utter banality. The vast majority of them consist only of shooting humans in the head—humans who move and shoot very slowly. The games are like very bad zombie pictures. Recently, however, I have seen some games that show real creativity, although I still think these are in the minority. The better games allow the player to do other things like race cars, play card game,s and have sex with virtual love dolls. Anything to break the mind-numbing boredom of these games is welcome, but the sexual elements of the games seem to raise obvious questions.
Why can’t a 13-year-old walk into a 7-11 and buy a copy of Playboy while he can walk into a game shop and buy a virtual facsimile? In fact, it seems the games are worse (for those who are afraid sex will destroy the moral characters of their children), because the girls in Playboy are static; you can do things with the computer girls.
My belief is that it isn’t the responsibility of store keepers to enforce the morality of children. I don’t think gun shops should sell kids guns—that’s not a matter of morality, it is a matter of health. But if children can buy these games, they should certainly be able to buy any magazines they want. And whether the Supreme Court majority wants to admit it or not, I think their 7-2 ruling shows that most of them just think that real naked girls are bad, and blowing people’s heads off with high-powered weapons is not. And they clearly don’t understand that video games are made with real actors—that is, they are anatomically correct.
One of the things my mom taught me was to live and let live. It’s great that children can now get their age-inappropriate games without their parents’ permission. I’d just like to know children are going to get all the other rights that they currently don’t have, just because it doesn’t mean billions of dollars to a well-connected industry.