Dissecting the Archbishop of Denver’s Take on Violent Video Games

It’s the comic books/Dungeons & Dragons/rock n’ roll/heavy metal/hip hop issue of our times: video games. An entertainment form enthusiastically enjoyed for the last several decades, video games have advanced in their technical, graphical and immersion qualities so rapidly that older generations have often become bemused or outright hostile to what they perceive to be the peddling of sex and violence to impressionable young minds.

Recently, the Supreme Court decided against a California statute (Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association) that would have outright criminalized the selling of this type of content to minors, in essence creating government oversight of the creation and distribution of entertainment in a way inconsistent with the handling of other forms of expression. Enter, the Archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput. Kotaku.com reposted an essay written by Archbishop Chaput expressing his concerns over the ruling. I really just want to touch on a few points he tries to make, but I’ll keep as much context as possible. Please read the entire essay yourself on either Kotaku or the original site it was posted on.

Chaput begins with his sad recollections of the Columbine tragedy in 1999, a horrifying incident that left an indelible mark in the minds of many Americans. Unfortunately, while I know that he brings up the incident to emotionally tie-in that tragedy with the case at hand, it really is a non-starter. First, it’s important to remember that video games being a part of the pop-psychological diagnosis of the two killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, was just one item discussed among a milieu of other issues surrounding the boys. Marilyn Manson and goth subculture, school bullying and gun culture were all spun in the media as part of their amateur profiling. Secondly, violence in games or other media as being the cause of violent behaviors, to this day, has never been sufficiently demonstrated in multitudes of psychological studies.

Then Chaput recollects his remarks to the U.S. Senate that year:

The reasonable person understands that what we eat, drink, and breathe will make us healthy or sick. In like manner, what we hear and what we see lifts us up – or drags us down. It forms us inside. Pornography degrades women. It also coarsens men. I don’t need to prove that because we all know it. It’s common sense . . . The roots of violence in our culture are much more complicated than just bad rock lyrics or brutal screenplays . . . But common sense tells us that the violence of our music, our video games, our films, and our television has to go somewhere, and it goes straight into the hearts of our children to bear fruit in ways we can’t imagine – until something like [Columbine] happens.

Here, Chaput goes from point A (violence in media) to point C (Columbine) without an explanation for point B, except a lot of hand-waving. He brings up pornography, as an analogy I suppose, where it apparently “degrades women” and “coarsens men” much like violent music, movies and games are supposed to make children violent. How does he back this claim up?

I don’t need to prove that because we all know it. It’s common sense.

Um, he doesn’t? This is unfortunate since “common sense” isn’t necessarily so “common” or full of “sense” anyway. Heck, it was once common sense that the Earth was flat. He tries to sprinkle in some reasonableness by stating “The roots of violence in our culture are much more complicated than just bad rock lyrics or brutal screenplays”, but essentially ignores his own statement with the followup oversimplification.

But common sense tells us that the violence of our music, our video games, our films, and our television has to go somewhere, and it goes straight into the hearts of our children to bear fruit in ways we can’t imagine

Where are the steps made up of evidence that add up to that conclusion? “It has to go somewhere” is not an acceptable demonstration of logic. In fact, that’s “underpants gnome logic”.

He has other problems in presenting a logical argument as he moves forward referencing Justice Samuel Alito’s slightly more nuanced opinion in the majority decision.

Thus, for Justice Alito, the Court makes a serious mistake in too quickly lumping violent video games under the same protections given Grimm’s Fairy Tales or network TV. In the Alito-Roberts view, the Court should not act prematurely in blocking efforts to deal with what some (in fact, many) people believe to be “a significant and developing social problem.”

Chaput now presents the fallacy colloquially known as the argument from popularity: the premise is true because “many” consider it to be so. The various opinions and viewpoints of people without a solid logical demonstration of cause and effect, or real world evidenciary support, should be unpersuasive in a matter of jurisprudence. In other words, Chaput is making an emotional plea based on multiple persons (who he doesn’t even claim to be in the majority) rather than just his own personal emotional argument.

My point here is not that video games are bad. My point is that when we too readily stretch an individual’s right to free speech to include a corporation’s right to sell violence to minors, we collude in poisoning our own future-and tragedies like Columbine are the indirect but brutally real proof of what I mean.

I’m not sure he understand what “proof” means. No one presented “proof” that Columbine occurred because of violent video games, yet here we are with Chaput making a definitive statement based on his “common sense”, a synonym for “gut” all too often.

This “gut” leads the Archbishop to concluding that the law would have protected “parent’s rights”.

Thomas argues that “the practices and beliefs of the [nation’s] founding generation establish that ‘the freedom of speech,’ as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech) without going through the minors’ parents or guardians.” For Thomas, “history clearly shows a founding generation that believed parents to have complete authority over their minor children and expected parents to direct the development of those children . . . In light of this history, the Framers could not possibly have understood ‘the freedom of speech’ to include an unqualified right to speak to minors”-or, by extension, to sell them murder simulators.

In practice, Brown extends and elevates the individual’s right to free expression – or in this case, a corporation’s right to make a healthy profit-at the expense of family sovereignty, the natural rights of parents and the intent of the Constitution’s authors.  

The “natural rights of parents” is a powerful sounding term in a country where we love to consistently argue about our rights. However, it’s a fairly incorrect representation of the statute he’s defending. He does actually acknowledge that there is another right of concern here:  “the individual’s right to free expression”, which would most definitely have been infringed should the Supreme Court decided on behalf of California. However, such a decision would have taken away those “natural rights of parents” as well, forcing the government to make those child-rearing decisions on behalf of parents with the de facto banning of objectionable video game content. In essence, the State of California would be “in loco parentis”. The regulation would have required the state government to come up with standards (as opposed to the current voluntary ratings system that has been improving steadily over a decade after implementation), which would have a chilling effect on the creativity and production of video games as a whole. Companies, to avoid having to deal with the fines and legal headaches of dealing with each state individually, would likely stay away from such potential costs entirely by deciding against creating games with anything that would remotely resemble offenses agains the variety of local regulations that would arise over such a precedent. The state will have created a wall against content for even a parent to consume with or without their children.

Some will argue how would this be different from pornography which is actually banned from sale to minors. In terms of the industries, it’s an apples to oranges comparion. Pornography, while still incredibly lucrative even in its banned state (speaking to the hypocricy of many of those who denigrate it) does not, as a rule:

  • Require high overhead and massive numbers of highly trained, technically skilled employees
  • Lengthy production schedules
  • Specific pieces of hardware that require licenses to reach a mass audience
  • Retail units that, for the most part, require MSRPs of around $60 apiece

If you want to ignore the economic differences, socially speaking, not all violent video games are meant purely for simulating violence for primitive thrillseeking, regardless of the unsubstantiated opinions presented by Chaput. Many of these games include increasingly complex narratives and aesthetic appeal that are the core of the experience, but due to the violence that may be a part of that content, those games would be lumped in with the Postals of the world should this legislation been allowed to stand. Thus, pornography legislation has not hampered the industry, or prevented its consumers, from being able to purchase such materials because of the realities of economics and where the interest in prurient content lie.

Essentially, to attack a still yet undefined and undemonstrated problem of violent video games getting in the hands of minors (already being addressed by a voluntary ratings system that has been shown to be working, manned by non-industry reviewers) leading to violent behavior, the Archbishop would have the various state governments take draconian actions that would inhibit the growth of an entertainment industry based on instinctual revulsion of a segment of the entire medium. I’m sure the Archbishop of Denver means well, but to me his specious arguments are the very definition of an overreaction.

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