Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fairy Tales, Video Games and the Supreme Court

Fairytale Fights Fairytale Fights Fairytale Fights

A small media frenzy has been centered around the Supreme Court's decision about regulating video games for children.

For example, from NPR, Weekly Standard: Violent Games Are No Fairy Tale by Jeffrey H. Anderson:

On Monday, in the case of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the Supreme Court struck down a California law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to children. In a 7-2 holding authored by Justice Antonin Scalia (with Justices Alito and Roberts concurring and Justices Thomas and Breyer dissenting), the Court ruled that video games enjoy essentially the same constitutional protection as books, with violent video games being, in Scalia's estimation, much like modern day Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Of course, there is very little similarity between reading (or, for that matter, watching film adaptations of) Snow White or Cinderella and deciding whether to murder, disembowel, or rape one's victim in a video game (all of which, as Justice Alito details, are features of some of these games). That the Court's majority fails to see this distinction shows how inapt it is to have that body engage in such line-drawing for an entire republic. Further demonstrating this, Scalia also compares such video games to The Odyssey, and he somewhat mystifyingly declares that literature and video games are similarly "interactive."
From the majority opinion by Scalia, available here:

Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world),” Justice Scalia wrote. “That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”

Certainly the books we give children to read–or read to them when they are younger–contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed. As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers ’till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.’ . . . Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. . . . And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven.
Some other links:

At PBS: Citing Violence in Fairy Tales, Justices Strike Down Calif. Video Game Law

At the New York Times: Justices Reject Ban on Violent Video Games for Children by ADAM LIPTAK

At the Miami Herald: Justices don’t live in the real world by Cal Thomas

And Maria Tatar also posted about this on her blog.

I'm not jumping on the opinion train here--although I admit I have one as someone who works with kids and it is about to become obvious anyway--but I find no end of amusement that centuries old literature is being used to defend a very recent invention which is rather unrelated. Yes, both are graphic, but their means of delivery are so very different in intent and impact that it is almost disturbing to compare them. In other words, I read and deal with fairy tales most of the hours of my life but I can't stand to watch the violence of many of these games. Yes, I had a nightmare when working on Bluebeard, but that is the exception not the rule.

And, no, parents in my experience aren't usually sharing the most violent versions of fairy tales with the kids anyway. It's the high school and college students who learn that the tales are much more violent than they knew and feel like another level of their innocence has been eroded away at the discovery. Then they either beg for the violent ones--I get emails!--or run for familiar relative safety of the Disney versions although I contend those are much more violent than we admit.

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