Supreme Court Declares Violent Video Games are Fine… Unless Someone Is Naked

It has been several years since I last carjacked and bludgeoned my way to a successful all-nighter in Grand Theft Auto but I figured since I am going to criticize violent video games, I should start by admitting what fun I’ve had playing them. And they are fun. That’s why I stopped. There was a cognitive dissonance in my mind that could not reconcile my purported sense of social justice with the thrill I experienced beating the hell out of virtual characters and blowing things up. Since I’ve never wanted to be a “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of parent, I stopped, cold turkey, and began lecturing on the sexism and teachable moments implicit in video games that are so popular among young people.

Today, the Supreme Court decided to strike down a California law that had banned the sale of violent video games to minors. To paraphrase that without the use of double negatives; the Court said that retailers may sell violent video games to minors. My reaction depended on which part of me was asked. As a parent of two children, one of whom is a teenager, I thought this was the wrong decision, since children’s exposure to violent video games is probably not a good thing. So that part of me thumbed my nose at the Court, but was quickly rebuffed by the free speech advocate in me, which applauded the decision and reminded me that government has no business censoring private matters. Leave it to parents and guardians to educate their children and enforce rules that restrict unhealthy messages. Then there was the skeptic in me who thought, “Something’s just not right here. What has the Supreme Court said in other matters of censorship among minors?”

My inner skeptic is always the wisest.

In prior cases, the Supreme Court has handed down decisions forbidding the sale of materials that contain nudity to minors. So here is the quandary: selling a copy of Playboy or Playgirl to a minor will land a retailer in the slammer. But, the same vendor is free to sell a mega-violent video game to the same minor, equipping him[1] with the ability to perform virtual decapitations, light pedestrians on fire, and more! His virtual self may rape at will, and bludgeon until a pool of virtual blood forms below the victim and the paramedics arrive. And then he may take a rocket launcher to the ambulance. All of this is perfectly legal to sell to minors. However, it instantly becomes illegal if the person whose virtual head you’re chopping off is also naked. I mean, we want her to be treated with some respect, right? It would be obscene and offensive to chop off someone’s head when she’s nude.

All of this, of course, is an extension of the curious messages we receive in other forms of media, including television and its questionable regulation by the Federal Communications Commission (as “Family Guy” character Peter Griffin calls it, “The Freakin’ FCC”). Our nation wrings its hands at a split-second shot of a performer’s nipple, and the FCC comes down full force with unprecedented fines for utterances of “the f-word.” However, the same regulatory bodies remain completely uninterested in televised violent imagery. While I may be concerned about whether my son will lose his lunch while flipping past a realistic autopsy on a prime time crime drama, the Freakin’ FCC expends its efforts investigating the harm done by the World Series star who burst, in elation, “World fucking champions!” on national television. In fact, the Supreme Court emphasized the need to crack down on such celebratory moments when it decided, just two years ago, that television stations could be fined for airing fleeting expletives.

The hypocrisy of the most recent Court decision is rooted in a society that assumes sexuality in all its manifestations is bad. As the late, great sexuality educator Sol Gordon lamented, “There is something wrong with a society that teaches ‘Sex is dirty. Save it for someone you love.’” Sex, sexuality, and the human body are all beautiful things that exist in nature. The jury seems to be out on the government’s impressions of violence, despite its hurtful and often obscene nature. The result is strict regulation of sexual content while violent content goes unchallenged.

In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer eloquently explained the contradictory nature of today’s Court decision with prior decisions on minors and censorship:

“What sense 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? What kind of First Amendment would permit the government to protect children by restricting sales of that extremely violent video game only when the woman — bound, gagged, tortured and killed — is also topless?”

[1] Don’t call me out on sexism here. According to a 2009 Nielsen study, teen boys play video games at a rate more than five times higher than teen girls.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • freetobe

    Now children it seems have more rights than adults?? I am sure their is horrendous violence against women in these videos. They of course are bowing to their corporate masters. Disgusting! Where do we draw the lines on all this free speech that is violent and provokes violence?the supreme court 5 needs IMPEACHMENT!!!!


  • plume-assassine

    This just started up, but I’m sure it will be something to watch: Video games are counter-revolutionary

  • crowepps

    “But what sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting a 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? What kind of First Amendment would permit the government to protect children by restricting sales of that extremely violent video game only when the woman — bound, gagged, tortured, and killed — is also topless?”

    Justice Breyer’s dissent

    Link to the opinion:

  • pheasantweber

    This reminds me of that documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated. Kids can watch vicious murders and violent crimes, listen to horrendous language.. but not look at naked people, especially a DUDE!!! AAAAHHHHH

  • datasnake

    Maybe the problem isn’t that there’s too little censorship of violence, but too much censorship of sex. Take the Janet Jackson incident, for example. Anyone who is yelling about how terrible it is that their kid saw a breast on TV is forgetting what that kid drank out of shortly after being born.

  • datasnake

    1. It was a 7-2 decision, with all 3 women voting against the law and Clarence Thomas voting for it. Which would you consider more trustworthy when it comes to combating “horrendous violence against women”?

    2. The ruling just said there shouldn’t be a LAW against selling violent games to kids, just as there isn’t a LAW against letting kids into R-rated movies. The industry is, in fact, capable of regulating itself.

    3. On that note, ESRB ratings are enforced MORE striclty than MPAA ratings, or indeed any other form of rating.

    4. In response to this:

    Where do we draw the lines on all this free speech that is violent and provokes violence?

    I refer you to this:

    If these games are trying to cause violence, they’re doing a pretty poor job.

    5. If a parent doesn’t want their kid to play a violent game, they could just not buy the kid anything with something like this on the box:

    See the giant “M” and the words “MATURE 17+”? Those are subtle hints that you might not want to buy this for your grade schooler. They even include a LIST of everything potentially objectionable in the game on the back of the box:

     All you have to do as a parent is take the half minute out of your day to read it and decide if that’s a game you want your kid to play. More info here.

    6.Games, by definition, ARE NOT REAL. I am an expert marksman in DOOM, for instance, and I’ve never even TOUCHED a gun in real life.


    EDIT: Sorry, I guess I kinda flew off the handle there. It just bothers me when people keep repeating the discredited idea that violent games cause real world violence. If you don’t see why, imagine how you would react if you went to a gaming website and saw an article claiming that abortion causes breast cancer.

  • crowepps

    This law doesn’t have anything to do with parents going in and selecting games for their kids.  This law was about kids going in, without their parents, and buying games when their parents didn’t know that they had done so, and when the parents DIDN’T WANT THEM TO.  It was an attempt to keep the retailers from selling violent games to kids behind their parents’ backs.

  • deniolcouk

    Is it not the job of parents to filter suitability to their own childern, just as it is thier responsibility to control what they beleive to be acceptable behaviour in real life. I enjoyed many games as a child, it doean’t mean I’m about to turn into a ninja nor order anyform of lethal laser! It is a fallacy that the courts should be deciding what your children can and can’t do. Its about time those parents stopped reading the papers and complaining about having to monitor their own children instead of wasting time, accusing legal systems of failing you as a parent, when in fact if you beilive that the law should stop games then you are indeed failing as a parent!

  • jayn

    We tend not to gives kids enough credit about knowing the difference between fantasy and reality.  Part of the fun of violent video games is that they’re not real–you can behave in ways you never could, or even would want to, in real life.  They’re also a great way to safely vent some anger if you need to.  “Work sucked today.  I’m gonna whack some aliens before supper.”


    Besides, you usually get carded when you’re buying M rated games.

  • crowepps

    Yes, and people get carded because they are in a store which VOLUNTARILY as part of their business practices enforces the VOLUNTARY rating system.  What this particular court case was about was California’s attempt to REQUIRE all businesses to enforce the rating system.

  • crowepps

    You’re absolutely right — those parents who want to fulfill their responsibility to their children should just quit their jobs and stay home, where they can be sure the children aren’t exposed to anything to which the parents don’t want them exposed and aren’t doing anything the parents doing want them to be doing.  It’s totally unreasonable to expect society in general to give parents any assistance if doing so would require cutting into somebody’s profits.  After all, it’s the parents responsibility to monitor their own children, and all that requires is that the children never be out of your sight at any time until their 18th birthday.

  • datasnake

    It’s easier for a kid to get into an R rated movie than to buy an M rated game. Since there is no NEED for such a law, its only effect would have been to symbolically place games in the same category as porn, i.e. not protected by the first amendment, opening the way for a broader ban.