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Free Expression Policy Project
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posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
date posted: 12:00 AM Fri Sep 27th, 2002
last revision: 12:00 AM Fri Sep 27th, 2002

By Shawn Rider

Last Spring US District Court Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Sr. determined that videogames do not qualify as "speech" and are therefore not protected under the First Amendment. The case was brought before Judge Limbaugh by the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) and St. Louis videogame retailers and arcade owners who were upset about an ordinance passed by the St. Louis City Council regulating violent and mature videogames. In the court's ruling, Judge Limbaugh wrote that there is "no conveyance of ideas, expressions, or anything else that could possibly amount to speech. The court finds that video games have more in common with board games and sports than they do with motion pictures."

Of course these words seem ludicrous, especially to those of us who play games and have become enthralled in a story or been taken by a particularly interesting meaning. We only have to recall games like Black and White, Deus Ex, Abe's Oddyssey, Majestic, State of Emergency, Medal of Honor, and a host of others to find examples of involving narratives conveying ideas and expressing emotion in addition to proliferating various worldviews and ideologies. To make his decision even more absurd, Judge Limbaugh cited his "survey" of four games, two of which he mistakenly refers to as "Mortal Combat" and "Resident of Evil Creek".

This case is memorable because it demonstrates the potential there is for videogames to become marginalized and regulated into a mainstream preconception of what they can be. That means, for the most part, that videogames will be doomed to become entertainment for children and thumb workouts for cell phones, much as comic books were regulated into the territory of jingoistic superheroes during the 1950s and 1960s. I don't have to spend a whole lot of time detailing to you why we don't want to see videogames limited in such ways. Aside from the fact that most of our readers at GamesFirst! are already among those who see games as an artform akin to film and literature, James Wagner Au of Salon.com did a wonderful job outlining all the ideological and critical faults in Judge Limbaugh's decision in his excellent article, Playing Games with Free Speech."

Unfortunately, much of the coverage of videogames in mainstream media and legal action focuses on the violent aspects of games and their potential to induce violent behavior. As the Free Expression Policy Project (FEPP) puts it in their latest release, this connection between videogame violence and violence in children is a "common-sense hypothesis." They go on to note that common-sense hypotheses are not always necessarily correct, and the document, authored by 33 media scholars, goes on to detail exactly why videogames do not necessarily lead to violence among the youth.

The report from FEPP takes into account a large number of studies and evaluates their methods, which are often questionable. Violent activity is sometimes equated with actions like popping balloons, and other "aggressive" elements such as "noise blasts" and "aggressive words" on-screen are cited as contributing to aggressive behaviors. In addition, there is a general error made when researchers fail to differentiate between "aggressive" reactions to playing games and excitement or enjoyment arising from difficulty or performance in a game.

It turns out that we've been down this road before. Comic books were scrutinized. Television has been scrutinized. Movies and music have been recently put under the microscope. In all of these cases, results have been inconclusive, but that has not stopped researchers and advocates from making generally unfounded claims about the relationship between violent media and violent behavior. In fact, similar results from similar studies have connected violent behavior to television shows like "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood". Certainly there is cause for some rational, distanced evaluation of these projects, as it seems unlikely that Daniel the Timid Tiger has ever pushed any child over the edge. However, that's the common sense coming into play, and common sense seems to be a tricky thing in this subject area. As the FEPP report points out, the occasional positive results in any of these studies do not indicate a larger trend of media-inspired violence.

Rejecting the casual hypothesis that media violence inspires real-world violence is key to the FEPP argument. They advocate a more complex, nuanced approach to the issue. The more interesting view on the subject recognizes that individuals are affected in a variety of ways by all media, and how they are affected depends very much on their specific personalities, experiences, likes and dislikes. The report states, "MIT's Henry Jenkins summed up this approach when he wrote that many young people ˜move nomadically across the media landscape, cobbling together a personal mythology of symbols and stories, and investing those appropriated materials with various personal and subcultural meanings.'" It goes on to note that these appropriated and personalized mythologies are then used for various personal reasons. For example, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who has studied the connection between adolescent recklessness and preference for loud or "violent" music, writes that, "adolescents who like heavy metal music listen to it especially when they are angry and the music has the effect of calming them down and dissipating their anger." Furthermore, it is often ignored that the youth, especially teens, who enjoy violent videogames and media the most are often very opposed to violence in the real world and that young people just might be smart enough to tell the difference.

The exhaustive survey of studies on videogames and other media influences on youth is an enlightening and interesting read. The FEPP has created a major point of reference for anyone interested in the subject that is well-documented and well thought out. Their conclusion about censorship and videogames is solid: "Censorship laws based on bogus claims that science has proved harm from violent entertainment deflect attention from the real causes of violence and, given the positive uses of violent fantasy, may be counterproductive." We couldn't agree more.

In spite of the fact that similar ordinances have been struck down, and that other US District Courts have recognized the right of videogames to protection under the First Ammendment, the St. Louis ordinance is still in place.