On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, that a California law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to children was unconstitutional. The justices found, in a 7 to 2 decision, that video games—even those involving, according to the California statute, “killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being . . . [in ways] patently offensive to prevailing community standards”—are art. As such, they are First Amendment-protected free speech. The majority found that the games’ speech about violence does not qualify as obscenity, meaning the state cannot regulate such content in the same way that it regulates sexually explicit material.
The Supreme Court’s decision met varied reactions in the court of public opinion. Civil rights advocates generally approved, as did the multibillion dollar video game industry. A statement from the Entertainment Software Association declared, “The First Amendment is alive and well . . . . [C]reative expression will continue to flourish free of censorship and . . . consumers will retain the right to choose their own entertainment.” For its part, California claimed the law fell within a legitimate, compelling interest in protecting minors. California state senator Leland Yee lamented that the Court had “put the interests of corporate America before the interests of our children.” Many parents and educators also expressed dismay and frustration with the decision.
It’s Legal—But Is It Right?
The Supreme Court has settled this case, but public debate about violent video games, as well as other controversial media, continues. How should the church respond? What is at stake for Christians in this conversation?
We believe Jesus charges us to be “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). The church is, in part, God’s strategy for social transformation. United Methodists, for instance, affirm John Wesley’s insistence that Christians are called “to spread scriptural holiness across the land,” and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) holds up “the promotion of social righteousness” as one of the “Great Ends of the Church.” If, as some (though not all) research suggests, violent video games adversely affect those who play them, including children, then Christians may seek to limit such games’ influence as a way of encouraging our society to focus instead on everything “worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8). Few would argue, whether or not they play these games, that the macabre mayhem they depict is praiseworthy.
On the other hand, Paul is addressing himself to believers, not society at large. Elsewhere he teaches, “God will judge those outside” the church (1 Corinthians 5:13). Christians must look first to their individual moral health, knowing that God holds God’s people to higher standards. Does spending money and time on violent games glorify God or help us conform more closely to the image of Christ?
Despite well-intentioned adults’ best efforts, Christian teens will be exposed to violent video games or other potentially objectionable entertainment options. The question youth leaders can help youth learn to answer is not, “Is this a good choice for someone else?” but, “Is this a good choice for me as a follower of Jesus?” They need not all make the same decision; Christians sometimes disagree, in good conscience, about what is and isn’t appropriate. But the church can teach youth skills for thinking theologically about the media they encounter and choose to enjoy.