The Supreme Court today struck down a California law barring the sale of violent video games to children. By a vote of 7 to 2, the justices ruled that the law violated the First Amendment right to free speech.
In a concurring vote, Justice Samuel Alito (joined by Chief Justice John Roberts) wrote that a more carefully crafted law restricting such sales might be constitutional. According to Adam Liptak of The New York Times, he argued that the California law “was too vague, even though it was meant to address an authentic problem.”
So, are violent video game an authentic problem? Can playing these games, in which players often assume the role of violent protagonist, affect behavior for the worse?
There is a clear consensus among researchers that the answer is yes. As we reported last year, a meta-analysis of research on the subject “yielded strong evidence that playing violent video games is a significant risk factor for both short-term and long-term increases in physically aggressive behavior,” according to Iowa State University psychologist Craig Anderson, the paper’s lead author.
Another Iowa State psychologist, Douglas Gentile, is a leading researcher on this topic. As we noted in a 2007 story, he argues that as a result of exposure to violent imagery – including video games — a “culture of disrespect” has developed among American teens.
Gentile surveyed nearly 2,500 children and adolescents at two different points about five months apart about their hostile attitudes and propensity for violence, as well as their video-game usage. He found kids who played multiple video games were more likely than their peers to become aggressive.
Some researchers continue to take issue with that consensus, however, and another study released last year provides an interestingly refined take on the subject. It found playing a violent police officer in a video game makes one more likely to identify with and feel sympathetic toward violent cops.
As we wrote at the time, the researchers found “a strong link between playing a violent game and justifying violent behavior.” But their work suggests that activating this link “requires a fairly precise match between real-life circumstances and the virtual world one has been inhabiting.”
Another perspective was added just this spring, in a paper written by University of Innsbruck psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer and published in the journal Psychological Science. In two experiments, Greitemeyer found that "playing violent video games increased dehumanization, which in turn evoked aggressive behavior. Thus, it appears that video-game-induced aggressive behavior is triggered when victimizers perceive the victim to be less human."