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Supreme Court Opposes Ban on Sale of Violent Video Games – Was It the Right Decision?

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A six-year battle between the gaming industry and the State of California came to a head earlier this week when the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to ban the sale of extremely violent video games to minors in California. The proposed law would have prohibited the sale of these games to children under the age of 18 and any retailer violating this law would have been fined up to $1,000.

In a 7-2 ruling, Supreme Court Justices, led by Antonin Scalia declared the ban as a violation of the first amendment, stating, "No doubt a state possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm. But that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed."

In perusing the transcript (a whopping 73 pages), some of the main arguments included the distinction between gaming and all other forms of entertainment, as well as how concrete the data is around the effects of violent video gaming and kids.

Justice Ginsberg states: “What's the difference? I mean, if you -- if you are supposing a category of violent materials dangerous to children, then how do you cut it off at video games? What about films? What about comic books? Grimm’s fairy tales? Why are video games special? Or does your principle extend to all deviant, violent materials in whatever form?”

Justice Scalia added in his opposing argument: “Certainly the books we give children to read—or read to them when they are younger—contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed. As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers ‘till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.’ Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven.” 

While I see their points and the fact that there is indeed a gray line for censorship, the other fact is that there are some incredibly violent video games on the market that kids (or even adults in my opinion) should have access to. One of the video games called into question throughout the hearing is one called POSTAL - as in "going postal." I’ve never played it, but from what I’ve read and seen about it, it’s essentially a killing melee that the gamer imposes on everything and everything that crosses his path. The game’s description is as follows:

Forget what you know about first person shooters. Walk a week in the Postal Dude's shoes. Freely explore full 3-D open ended environments. Interact with over 100 unique NPC's including Gary Coleman, marching bands, dogs, cats and elephants, protesters, policemen and civilians, with or without weapons. POSTAL 2 is all about choice; experiment with everyone and everything. This is retro gameplay at its finest! In the ilk of Robotron, play from a 3/4 Isometric view and take out your aggression on gun toting protagonists, innocent bystanders as well as torching a marching band! And remember's only as violent as you are!

This image is from the game itself and is one of the tamer screenshots from Postal 2. The Supreme Court questions the detrimental impact that this kind of unabashed violence has on kids, but on the flipside, I can’t imagine anyone who would think it offers any kind of benefit whatsoever.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry conducted a study several years ago on the effects of children and violent video games and found that children can “become “immune” or numb to the horror of violence, imitate the violence they see, and show more aggressive behavior with greater exposure to violence. Some children accept violence as a way to handle problems. Studies have also shown that the more realistic and repeated the exposure to violence, the greater the impact on children. In addition, children with emotional, behavioral and learning problems may be more influenced by violent images.” I think it’s safe to assume that the level of violence has only increased and intensified since the time this study was published, which means that these findings carry even more weight.

It’s definitely a slippery slope when it comes to figuring out where and when the decision goes from the hands of the parents to the hands of the government. The reality of the gaming industry however is that kids are going to continue gaming and these games are going to continue getting more violent. If there isn’t going to be higher-level intervention against exposing kids to such violence, it is imperative that parents take the initiative and realize that their kids can get these games online, at their friends’ houses and at game retailers who care more about the sale of the game than who is going to be playing it.  

For more tips on finding age-appropriate video games for your kids, please refer to this previous post.




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