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Violent video game wars: The Supreme Court's mutant decision ignores one crucial sector of society

June 28, 2011 |  3:04 am

Supreme Court's Conference Room

We'll be right up front about it. Horror movies have never held any appeal, perhaps because in our early days, like radio, they left so much more to viewers' own powerful imaginations than today's 3-D, multicolor graphic dismemberments, eruptions and explosions.

On one hand, the Supreme Court's Monday ruling blowing up California's law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to those under 18 makes perfectly consistent free speech sense. And fits with the ongoing strongly free speech standards of the Roberts court.

As a member of the media, whose lifeblood is freedom of speech, we cherish the ability to express, encourage discussion and, in this era of hyper-partisanship, sometimes offend segments. Hopefully.

In a previous life as a news reporter striving to cover the sometimes harsh, even brutal and crude reality of a world we were assigned to accurately depict, we often clashed with the granny rules of print newsrooms where well-meaning, usually elderly editors in air-conditioned offices could....

...rule on what words, phrases or images might offend delicate reader sensibilities at their next breakfast -- be it street or war gore, crude language or a graphic photo. The safest decision, of course, was not to go there, as we learned later as an editor.

With colleagues we pushed the envelope at times, concocting ridiculous euphemisms (one favorite was 'eight-letter barnyard epithet' to circumvent the profession's self-imposed restrictions on what a famous defendant kept yelling in a courtroom).Violent video game guess what happens to the girl next

We argued that by seeking to protect readers from a sometimes disturbing or repugnant reality we were unintentionally distorting the true reality we had vowed to publish. In fact, that distorting dismay erupted right in this space after last winter's awful Tucson shootings when a photograph of the crime scene including a covered, unidentified fatality was removed because one ancillary editor said he felt offended.

These are not easy decisions. They shouldn't be. Nor, despite the 7-2 vote, does it appear to have been easy for the Supreme Court.

Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said, "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 his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the court's more liberal members, argued in favor of California's restrictions, signed in 2005 but never enforced.

"What sense," Breyer asked, "does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting the sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her?"

Actually, that's the least of what these "games" depict: "Players" can use a wide variety of weapons -- guns, of course, often point-blank to the head, chainsaws, scythes, fillet knives, producing vivid splatter and rolling body parts. Rapes with accompanying violence and screams climaxed by unheeded cries for mercy and explicit homicide. Electric drills. Igniting gasoline on anguished victims.

One "game," presumably for males, involves chasing victims and shooting a far-reaching, never-ending stream of yellow urine. Wonder how many of those seven protective justices would enjoy an evening of such entertainment with the neighbors' free-speech teens. Or having their daughter date an aficionado of such fare.a scene from one violent video game

This is why the court's decision can't pass the Q taste, as in Queasy.

In effect, the court decided that access to such interactive activities should be left to the industry's own rating system and the willingness of minimum-wage store clerks to enforce it.

And, of course, to parents, which sounds great theoretically.

Except the reality in a growing number of American homes in this stricken economy is that decision may slip by the parent, one overwhelmed adult who's also trying to earn a living, pay the taxes and bills, provide food and recreation, monitor cable TV shows, friends, texting and cell calls, plus nonstop online activities while watching a paralyzed federal government spend itself into oblivion helping just about every conceivable interest group.

Except parents. They're the ones charged with the essential nurturing and upbringing of the nation's future, one child at a time, while being enveloped in a society whose institutions like the court cite high-minded ideals while actively encouraging or permitting so many profitable and tempting influences contradictory to the best efforts at inculcating wholesomeness in young lives.

California and other states had their legal representatives at the Supreme Court. So did video "game" businesses, which called the ruling "everything the industry could have asked for."

It would have been nice if that lonely, harried group of outgunned parents had had some effective representation before the bench in this case. Or if in its cloistered fixation on the speech issue, the highest court in this land could have offered just a little broader help to arguably the most important individuals in the same land.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Steve Petteway (The Supreme Court's private conference room); cropped scenes from violent video games, as provided by the office of California Sen. Leland Yee.

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