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Justices pass over research in striking video game restrictions

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The Supreme Court on Monday struck down a California law meant to restrict sales and rentals of violent video games to kids, igniting a debate over free speech and the effects of such games.

Ultimately, the justices who voted to overturn the law relied on the First Amendment to conclude that families are the final authority on which games kids should play.

The decision rested little on the body of research that attempts to pinpoint the effects of slash-'em-up and steal-their-car games on kids. That research inspired the bill, which was written by California Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, a child psychologist. Here is a roundup of what some prominent studies have concluded:

  • The highest-profile violent attackers do not tend to be inspired by video games. On a website promoting their 2008 book, Harvard researchers Cheryl K. Olson and Lawrence A. Kutner cite studies by the U.S. Secret Service, FBI and Virginia Tech that show little link between famous attacks like Columbine and violent video games. The Secret Service reviewed 37 school shootings or stabbings through 2000 and found that 1 in 8 attackers were interested in violent video games.
  • Violent video games increase aggression and desensitize kids to violence. A 2010 worldwide study [PDF] of the effects of violent video games on more than 130,000 people from the U.S., Japan and Europe found a causal link to aggressive behavior and decreased levels of empathy toward others. The study authors concluded that “we believe that debates can and should finally move beyond the simple question of whether violent video game play is a causal risk factor for aggressive behavior; the scientific literature has effectively and clearly shown the answer to be 'yes.' "
  • Kids who play a lot of violent video games are more likely to get into fights or become bullies. During their research, Kutner and Olson surveyed more than 1,700 kids and parents about kids and their gaming habits and conducted focus groups with 63 kids and parents. They found that boys who play any M-rated games (for mature audiences) “a lot” were twice as likely to be in a physical fight, steal something from a store or damage property for fun than those who didn't play them. Girls who played those games were four times as likely to be in a physical fight and three times as likely to skip school with no excuse or have poor grades than those who didn't play them. For boys and girls, the more days they played video games each week, the more likely they were to be bullies.
  • Video game play has some upsides. Kutner and Olson point out the benefits of some video games, saying they can help kids and teens express creativity, improve visual skills, and help manage stress and anger.

Olson offered some tips for parents in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, suggesting that families restrict game play to common rooms rather than bedrooms and learn more about game content on websites such as What They Play and Common Sense Media.

For his part, Yee said his staff is closely reading the Supreme Court opinions in the interest of crafting a new bill that will withstand legal challenges. The gaming magazine The Escapist reports that Yee remains resolved to address the issue, noting that "the evidence is absolutely crystal clear that there are harmful effects on our children."

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