October 26, 2011

The Verdict Is In

Don Shifrin, MD, FAAP

In June’s United States’ Supreme Court decision in Brown (Governor of California) versus the Entertainment Merchants Association, the “nine” (actually 7-2) voted to reject a California law prohibiting the sale or rental of violent M-rated games to minors under 18. (According to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, “Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for those ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.”)

Apparently, there was a “lack of credible evidence” that created enough of a “reasonable doubt” to convince a majority of the justices that viewing or playing violent video games would not influence young minds and imaginations in morally perverse ways. Therefore, First Amendment freedoms could not be marginalized. Case closed.

True, the California law was vague and would have been difficult to enforce. But childhood advocates and most (unfortunately not all) researchers agree that viewing violence can influence behaviors, desensitize emotions to real life aggression, and produce a perspective that the real world has a violent landscape.

But here’s the thing -- the court established decades ago that laws could protect children from sex and pornography in the media. Albeit, apparently just not violent pornography against prostitutes as in Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories. In all honesty, a large majority of programming in cable, movies, games, and the Internet breach those laws daily.

The gaming industry, as well as TV, movies, and the music industry, proudly defend their individual rating systems, and device features, as evidence that parents can control exactly what their kids view or play.

In the “life imitating art” lesson here, I participated in an Israeli Army training session 3 years ago.At an Army training center, we were given M-16 rifles with laser sights and then watched a video on a room-sized screen where various terrorist scenarios were played as live situations. Shooters (of laser bullets) were graded on reaction time, terrorists killed or wounded, and civilians spared, or not. This video exercise has been in place for years to train soldiers to instinctively recognize, react, and respond appropriately with lethal force. I could say, in all honesty, that I was certainly desensitized to real life violence after multiple encounters. And that was after only 30 minutes of “playing time.”  The true point of the exercise?  Get used to assessing and shooting quickly and efficiently. The exercise is about desensitization. Appropriate for people going to war, not to school.

Training soldiers to react, shoot, and kill produces shooters like Michael Carneal. At Heath High School in Paducah Kentucky on Dec. 1, 1997, Michael, an expert gamer who had never fired a real gun, took a pistol to school, pulled it out in the hall and fired eight shots in succession. All eight hit students; five were head shots. (Something even law officers cannot accomplish most of the time.) He was heard to reply after he dropped the gun, “Kill me please; I can’t believe I did that.”

In 1999, the parents of three victims filed a $33 million lawsuit against two Internet pornography sites, several computer game companies, and makers and distributors of the films Natural Born Killers and The Basketball Diaries. They claimed that media violence inspired Michael and should be held responsible. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it was “simply too far a leap from shooting characters on a video screen to shooting people in a classroom.”  Both the parents’ attorney and the 79th U.S. Attorney General, John Ashcroft, went on record as stating that Michael’s proficient marksmanship was due to practice in violent video games.

No small wonder Lt. David Grossman, author of the book “Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill,” calls these games “murder simulators”.  We should not be surprised then when kids and teens enter emergency rooms after being shot with real bullets and they exclaim, “I didn’t know it could hurt this much.” Certainly it is a fact that pain or negative consequences of violent acts are rarely seen on screens.  Research from the landmark three-year National Cable Television Violence Study in 1997 demonstrated that conclusively.

For every Cheryl Olson (former Harvard psychiatry professor), who maintains there is no “credible evidence” that violent games cause children psychological or neurological harm, or make them more aggressive and likely to harm others, the evidence is slowly but surely going to cast “a reasonable doubt” on their assumptions.  Many think ample evidence exists to support that connection already.

So far, we do not know which children are most at risk or when; what kind of content in these games could cause psychological changes; and how much exposure it takes.

We do know, based on sex and pornography, that books are different from videos.  So comparing violence in a book to a video, done by one Supreme Court justice, seems simplistic at best.  And, to lump in that consideration that violent games have benefits, causes most researchers to reach for their antacids.

With this affirmation of free speech, the two dissenting justices did reaffirm the rightful job of mothers, fathers, grandparents, and caregivers to filter, monitor, and regulate children’s exposure. You and I both know that with devices galore and connections aplenty, that is now a seemingly endless task.

Note here that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) rated around 1,600 games in 2010.  That job was done by humans watching a DVD submitted by the game’s publisher, which includes the worst violence, language, and sexual scenes.  Evidently, they do not “play” the game.  But at least humans are involved -- for now.  The ESRB will now have computers rate online console games for Xbox, Wii, and PlayStation based on extensive ‘questionnaires’ submitted by the publishers.  Humans will not see or review the online games until it is on the Web.  As for the increasing number of apps, social, and mobile games, Apple and Zynga/Facebook have taken no action concerning any ratings system to date.

Ever the pragmatist, Michael Gallagher, President and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association, called the Brown decision, “An overwhelming endorsement of the first amendment: the right to free expression.”  Additionally, “It’s also a great victory for parents and the rights of parents.”

Really Mr. Gallagher?  I am sure if you put your ear to the rail you will hear a different kind of rhetoric from parents and the public.

The great Harlem Baptist preacher Calvin Butts once declared, “Violence is an American tradition.”  It’s also big business now left virtually unfettered.  And, at least in the court of this pediatrician’s opinion, money may not be all it is generating.