Entry from June 30, 2011

In yesterday’s New York Times, that paper’s regular reviewer of video games, Seth Schiesel, made the bizarre contention on the basis of the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down a California law against violent games that “It is now the law of the United States that video games are art. It is now the law of the United States that video games are a creative, intellectual, emotional form of expression and engagement, as fundamentally human as any other.” Of course, what he means is only that video games are, in the words of Justice Scalia’s opinion, “like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them” in a sufficient number of ways to qualify them for the same First Amendment protections. That’s not the same thing as an official imprimatur given to the artistic pretensions of video games or a gold-plated affirmation that Seth Schiesel is just as serious a critic as anyone who reviews art, literature, music or even movies.

Among those protected books, plays and movies, we know, are a number of artefacts, including many of the viler forms of pornography, that most people would hesitate to classify as “art” in any but the most descriptive sense. Most people use the word in a normative way in order to exclude dull, incompetent, inferior, kitschy and offensive works from classification as “art” alongside the kind which they admire. I think we can still use it in this way to exclude video games without running afoul of the law and the Constitution. Yet if Mr Schiesel is as usual eager to claim too much on behalf of video games, it has to be admitted that Justice Scalia himself does provide some warrant for his opinion.

Certainly (he writes) 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.

There is more in the same vein — Homer, Virgil, Dante, William Golding — but we get the point. We can also see at once that there are certain differences between Hansel and Gretel and Grand Theft Auto, among them the fact that it is the malefactor who is killed in the former but the one who is doing the killing in the latter. Also, the reader is encouraged to identify himself with the endangered children in Hansel and Gretel, and to rejoice in their escape; the player of Grand Theft Auto, by contrast, is encouraged to identify himself with the killer and to glory in his slaughter. The same differences apply to all the other works cited by Justice Scalia.

Up until only fifty years or so ago, everybody apart from a tiny cultural élite took it for granted that the popular arts had or ought to have had a moral purpose, and the law was happy to uphold what it called “community standards” by prohibiting obviously and avowedly immoral works or outrages against ordinary decency or good taste. When that consensus collapsed before the onslaught of the élite on behalf of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses, there were those who predicted that moral chaos would ensue. These people have now been proven right. I think there is an argument to be made against graphic depictions of even the most virtuous killing — though Hansel and Gretel, being a story, would remain immune to censure on that ground — but the real case against video games and for the California law rests on the fact that even so wise and learned a man as Mr Justice Scalia apparently can no longer tell the difference between these two radically different kinds of “violence” and so regards depictions of both with the same moral indifference.

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