The Senate’s violent video games bill: witch hunt or legitimate concern?

Last January, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, Sen. Jay Rockefeller proposed S. 134: Violent Content Research Act of 2013, which has since worked its way through the Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee. Freshly amended in December, the bill would require various governmental agencies to work with the National Academy of Sciences in researching the effects of video game violence on children, and the possible disproportionate impact they have on children already prone to aggression.

Following the shooting, video game violence and gun regulation were common themes in the media coverage. The NY Daily News made it clear both that the shooter played video games obsessively and that he illicitly received weapons from his mother, who skirted arguably lax gun laws. Concerned citizens reacted, demanding either stricter gun laws or accountability from violent video games. Sen. Rockefeller decided to seek a governmental study of video games, but by involving regulatory agencies such as the FCC and the FTC to work with the National Academy of Sciences, Rockefeller may be signaling that his intentions go beyond a study. The Senator has said before that he would like to give the FCC more authority to address violence in the media.

Rockefeller’s bill will face several significant hurdles. First, the bill’s opponent is no slouch in the lobbying arena. The main industry group for video games, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), spent $4.83 million on lobbying in 2012, nearly $2 million more than the National Rifle Association’s $2.98 million.

If the bill does pass, the studies it commissions will join a large volume of established literature on video game violence. Numerous studies have concluded that there is no causal link between violent media and subsequent aggression in consumers. One representative study in the Journal of Pediatrics summarizes: “This analysis does not find support for either a causal or correlational link between violent media and subsequent aggression in viewers. Why the belief of media violence effects persists despite inherent weaknesses of research is somewhat of an open question.” Perhaps that is why the ESA was confident in releasing a statement supporting “objective scientific research” and looking forward to an ongoing dialogue with the Senate Committee.

Much of the ESA’s confidence may also stem from the fact that the scientific record was credible enough for the Supreme Court to qualify video games for First Amendment protection in Brown v. EMA/ESA. Writing the opinion for a 7-2 majority in that 2011 case, Justice Scalia concluded: “Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively.”


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