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Violent Video Games and the Supreme Court's Ruling—Do Maturity Ratings Work?

The Supreme Court struck down a California law today that banned the sale of the most violent video games to children. The law would have strengthened the rating system and prevented minors from purchasing any video game involving “killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.” Games that violated this standard would have to bear an “18” label. The Court ruled that the current rating system was sufficient, and parents are free to deny their children violent video games. But is the current system a useful deterrent? 

Not exactly. A study by Marije Nije Bijvank and Elly A. Konijn in Pediatrics found that “mature” ratings made video games seem more attractive to children, even 7 to 8 year old girls. The study, “Age and Violent-Content Labels Make Video Games Forbidden Fruits for Youth,” looked at Dutch youth and their reactions to the Pan European Game Information system, which is similar to the Entertainment Software Rating Board in the United States. The researchers read the children descriptions of games with an age restriction, content label, or no label. They then asked the children to rank the games on how much they wanted to play the game and how boring they thought the game would be, on a 1-10 scale. They used these questions to determine a likability rating. Out of all the respondents, 7-8 year old boys gave the highest average likability rating—8.868 out of 10—to the games with 18+ labels. The same group only rated the games with no labels 5.248 out of 10. The authors conclude, “Age and violent-content labels do not prevent youngsters from playing games with objectionable content. Instead, our results show that labels have the opposite effect: they increase attraction to video games with objectionable content.” At the same time, they say studies show that “parents rarely use the labels” when allowing their children to buy video games. Whoops. Bijvank and Konjin advise pediatricians to talk to their young patients about violent video games, but to be careful of the “boomerang effect”—when pronouncements of disapproval only encourage stubborn children to do just the opposite of what their parents want.