Yesterday, the US Supreme Court came down on the side of violent video game producers, upholding a federal appeals court decision overturning a California state law (passed in 2005 but never enforced) that prohibited the sales of violent video games to minors.
Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia presented the 7-2 ruling as a defense of free speech and the free circulation of ideas. That’s been a consistent theme for the Roberts court, which in recent years has in the name of freedom of speech legalized the sale of animal torture videos and struck down limits on corporate political spending on the grounds that corporations have free speech rights too.
But in his dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer asked, “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?”
Drawing a parallel between violent video games and porn—both forms of representation that, critics argue, defy easy classification as First Amendment protected “speech”— Breyer’s dissent raises big questions about the digitally-blurred lines between ideas and actions. These are questions that theologians and faith leaders are only beginning to address, even as the digital plays an ever-more sophisticated and pervasive role in human experience, especially among young people. (Read more about the spiritual dimensions of digital experience here at RD.)
According to Craig Detweiler, editor of Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God (2010) and a professor of communications at Pepperdine University, video games are not so much a new spiritual frontier but instead belong to a long a human tradition of game-playing:
“First-person shooter games like Halo update the old shooting galleries at arcades. And Sim City is an electronic version of a dollhouse. We need a theology of play to call us back to the garden, to bracket the pressures of daily life, to try on personas and work out roles before we’re confronted by real life challenges.”
“While there is a long tradition of redemption violence,” Detweiler says, “it is difficult to justify the mayhem of Grand Theft Auto from a religious perspective. Interestingly, the rise of violent video games coincides with a drop in teen violence and crime. Perhaps adolescents are spending more time playing games rather than getting in trouble.”
And yet there seems to be something about the ever-increasing sophistication of digital simulation and the move towards player-directed extreme violence—including graphic and gruesome rape, torture, and murder—that goes beyond the matter of game playing and requires deeper theological attention.
In my own faith tradition, one of the most provocative theological takes on virtual violence comes I’ve seen comes from Elder David Bednar, a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Drawing on a Mormon belief that the purpose of this life is to gain a physical body and have experiences that contribute to the eternal progression of the soul, Bednar, speaking in 2009, warned young people against neglecting the essential this-worldly human experiences and responsibilities of embodied life for the digital:
A simulation or model can lead to spiritual impairment and danger if the fidelity is high and the purposes are bad—such as experimenting with actions contrary to God’s commandments or enticing us to think or do things we would not otherwise think or do “because it is only a game.”… The concerns I raise are not new; they apply equally to other types of media, such as television, movies, and music. But in a cyber world, these challenges are more pervasive and intense. I plead with you to beware of the sense-dulling and spiritually destructive influence of cyberspace technologies that are used to produce high fidelity and that promote degrading and evil purposes… Beware of digital displays and data in many forms of computer-mediated interaction that can displace the full range of physical capacity and experience.
If courts seem to be failing to get to the heart of digital violence’s complex blurring of idea and action, maybe it’s time for religious and philosophical thinkers to step up to the plate.