This report is presented in response to 2007 House Resolution No. 94, which directed the Joint State Government Commission to do a study to investigate the effects of violent interactive video games (VIVGs) on the children of this Commonwealth, in the context of all other media forms they are exposed to, under the guidance of a task force of advisors. This report includes the findings and recommendations of the task force.
Depiction of Violence in Video Games
Some of the M-rated video games depict such violent and gruesome acts as chainsaw decapitations and impalements, running characters over with cars, disembowelment, and eye-gouging with glass shards. In first-person shooter games, the player takes the point of view of a character with a machine gun or similar weapon, and the game consists of killing other characters. Some games reward proficiency in killing with points or additional powers, such as more effective weaponry.
Western culture has frequently dwelt on violence from its origins in Homer’s epic poetry and Greek drama down to such later media as the novel and the opera. Movies, popular music, and television all deal routinely with depictions of violent acts. If measures are taken to address the effects of violent media, it is important that no particular form of media is unfairly discriminated against.
Findings of Social Science
The most consistent finding of social research on VVGs is that there is a small but statistically significant correlation between habitual VVG play and certain indicia of aggression. The practical significance, if any, of this correlation is vigorously contested. Correlation is not the same as causation, but the two concepts are related. The correlation may represent a minor causative factor or the attraction of VVGs to children who are aggressive for other reasons. At most, VVGs represent a minor factor in childhood aggression, and there is no substantial evidence linking them to real life violence. The evidence suggests that violent media are unlikely to affect “normal” children. Some researchers have voiced concern that some children may be vulnerable to ill effects, but there is no consensus about what children may be affected or what those ill effects might be. Because of the recent development of VVGs, the rapid evolution of the games, and the methodological difficulties attending social research on media violence, the current state of the research leaves many questions unanswered.
Experts recommend that parents carefully monitor their children’s use of all media, including VVGs. Accordingly, parents should be encouraged and assisted in monitoring and controlling the games their children play, and they should avail themselves of the ESRB ratings, parental controls, and other resources available to parents on the Web and elsewhere.
VVGs can have positive effects as well as negative ones. Most importantly, they can help children interact with their peers; this advantage is especially helpful to shy or unathletic children. The games can also help improve motor skills, problem solving, logical reasoning, and other important skills.
Constraints on Regulation
The federal courts that have considered the validity of statutes or ordinances attempting to impose criminal penalties on the sale of video games to children have invariably struck the laws down. Video games are protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and laws imposing restrictions on their sales must withstand “strict scrutiny,” an exacting legal test that virtually guarantees invalidation. The courts have found that the social science research on the dangers age-inappropriate games pose for children is insufficient to support statutory restrictions on free expression and that the existence of an effective voluntary rating system makes penalties unnecessary.
The primary responsibility for assuring that VVGs do not impair the development of the Commonwealth’s children lies with parents. The video game industry has created a powerful tool to assist parents in this task in the form of the rating system developed by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The key to the rating system is the age ratings and content descriptors that appear on the packaging of nearly all video games sold by national distributors and most smaller retailers. Most retailers participate in a voluntary compliance system to prevent the sale of games to underage customers. The ESRB ratings have been highly effective in providing information to parents and other consumers about the age suitability and content of video games and supporting retailers in their enforcement of their store sales policies at brick and mortar locations, and to an increasing extent, on their Internet websites. However, there are instances where games that are accessible on the Internet are not submitted to ESRB for rating.
The General Assembly should consider devoting resources to the establishment of a publicly funded consumer education program on video and computer games.
The General Assembly must avoid enacting restrictive legislation similar to those that have been invalidated by the Federal courts.
The task force calls upon the academic community of this Commonwealth to pursue more scientifically based and objective research on the positive and negative effects of video games and other modern media on children and young adults.