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MEDIA SCHOLARS' BRIEF IN ST. LOUIS VIDEO GAMES CENSORSHIP CASE

On September 24, 2002, 33 media scholars, historians, psychologists, and games researchers filed a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, opposing a law that bars minors from video games containing "graphic violence." A trial judge upheld the ordinance based on the assumption that media violence has been proved to cause aggressive behavior. The scholars' brief explains that most laboratory experiments and other efforts to prove adverse effects from media violence have yielded null results. Those researchers reporting "aggressive" effects, moreover, have often manipulated the numbers, ignored negative findings, and used measures of "aggression" that are artificial and often ridiculous (for example, popping balloons or recognizing "aggressive" words on a computer screen).

The brief quotes British psychologist Guy Cumberbatch:

"The real puzzle is that anyone looking at the research evidence in this field could draw any conclusions about the pattern, let alone argue with such confidence and even passion that it demonstrates the harm of violence on television, in film and in video games. While tests of statistical significance are a vital tool of the social sciences, they seem to have been more often used in this field as instruments of torture on the data until it confesses something which could justify publication in a scientific journal. If one conclusion is possible, it is that the jury is not still out. It's never been in. Media violence has been subjected to lynch mob mentality with almost any evidence used to prove guilt."

The brief quotes one of the scholars, Celia Pearce, who sums up the humanist understanding of violent fantasy games: "Most of the alarmism about violence," she writes, "is based on a profound misunderstanding about the social and emotional function of games. Games allow people who are midway between childhood and adulthood to engage in fantasies of power to compensate for their own feelings of personal powerlessness. This role-playing function is important for children of all ages."

FEPP director Marjorie Heins wrote the brief with the help of the 33 scholars, among them MIT's Henry Jenkins, Columbia's Todd Gitlin, Amherst's Francis Couvares, and London University's David Buckingham.

For a copy of the brief, click here.

UPDATE: On June 2, 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit struck down the St. Louis ordinance, noting: "The County's conclusion that there is a strong likelihood that minors who play violent video games will suffer a deleterious effect on their psychological health is simply unsupported in the record." See Appeals Court Strikes Down St. Louis Video Games Law.


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The FEPP website is now hosted by the National Coalition Against Censorship. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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