“Realistic” Simulations: Foreboding in Alito’s Concurrence in Brown v. Merch.?

In June of 2011, the US Supreme Court struck down a California law that wanted to prevent the sale of violent or “adult” videogames to children who did not have parental permission. Scalia wrote the majority opinion, and for him it was a mostly clear-cut First Amendment case: Videogames count as the kind of protected speech that is covered by the free speech clause, and the California law gets in the way of that free speech. Straightforward. (The two dissenters wrote separately: Thomas took up the issue of parents, minors, and law, while Breyer took issue with an apparent incongruence in curtailing the sale of pornographic magazines and films but not of potentially pornographic videogames.)

I found the concurrence by Alito (joined by Roberts) particularly interesting. Alito still thought the law should be struck down, but seemed less sure than Scalia that video games were just another medium of expression, just like books or motion pictures. After playing some violent videogames, Alito writes, “[s]ome amici who support respondents foresee the day when “ ‘virtual-reality shoot-‘em-ups’ ” will allow children to “ ‘actually feel the splatting blood from the blown-off head’ ” of a victim.” Alito goes on to criticize Scalia’s opinion for failing to recognize differences of interaction between video games and other media.

As a Justice of the Supreme Court, Alito’s role is to look to arguments and evidence as presented. I am not so restricted. I propose three different lenses for considering Alito’s concern to evaluate whether it is justified: psychology, phenomenology, and Aristotelian catharsis.

1) Psychology. By psychology, I mean both clinical analytic psychology and something closer to neuroscience. Given the right scientific tools, the experiment is an easy one to conduct: subjects are exposed to a book, a movie, a platformed video game, and an immersive virtual-reality simulation each depicting the same act of violence. The brain of the subject is monitored (using MRI or whatever is better by the time such an experiment occurs) and the brain activity for each stimula is compared. This would, at least, determine whether there is a difference in the way the brain interacts with different media. Psychologists would also be able to observe and interview subjects to provide another means of evaluating the effects of each medium.

2) Phenomenology. Here, I mean “metaphysics through the filter of experience.” The ardent scientist might derisively call this approach “science without the hassle of experimentation.” While I think philosophy is no substitute for science, I also think science is no substitute for philosophy, and the two ought to go together as they did before the 18th (or 17th) century. The core of this approach is determining the distinctions between experience, imagination, imagined experience, and experienced imagination. I think there is a need for considerations from the field of aesthetics in determining just how we so casually mentally suspended reality to allow ourselves to be “drawn into” books, shows, plays, and now videogames. Until science can probe the brain effectively, it is here that we ask questions like “If movies and videogames become visually indistinguishable from reality, will the two media also be equally experiential?” And I think most phenomenologists (particularly Merleu-Ponty) answer “No.”

3) Catharsis. Until my last year of college, I did not know that the ancient Greeks performed their plays as part of very big festivals, a core part of which was tremendous mourning and wailing and weeping in response to the tragedy presented before them. Knowing this gives context to why Plato despises poets and playwrights, and why Aristotle thinks this is even a subject worth discussion. There are two understandings of what Aristotle meant by Catharsis in this context. One school holds that he thought it was important to let loose a torrent of emotion in the way the Greeks culturally did, and so cleanse their emotions. A different approach is that Aristotle believed emotions were to be expressed in the right way and for the right reason, and the expression of sorrow, as a community, at a tragic story, is an appropriate expression of emotion. We might ask whether hyper-real videogames are a positive outlet of catharsis, and it may be that the answer turns on the sort of videogame one plays.

Baudrillard famously addressed issues of simulation in the post-modern context. He probably argued that as we understand reality in terms of simulation, our reality becomes the simulation, and the simulation becomes our reality. For him, this was a way of understand post-modern society, politics, economics, and culture. A version of his reasoning might one day become a way of understanding our relationship with technology we used to call videogames.