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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Why Grand Theft Auto is like Hansel and Gretel

It isn’t.  I explain.

A children’s librarian may sometimes spend a certain amount of time defending a child’s right to read fairy tales or books that reference those tales.  So when a parent complains about the severed heads in A Tale Dark and Grimm or the girl dancing to her death in Breadcrumbs, the librarian can point to the classic fairy tales on which these books draw their inspiration and point out that such literary violence is a part of our cultural history.  It is also generally cartoonish in nature.

On a grander scale literary violence as a whole has rather exploded on the market lately.  My husband the other day was saying that if a person isn’t asking you if you read The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet’s Nest then they want to know if you’re a Hunger Games fan.  Across the board we’re seeing a spike in violence in children, young adult, and adult literature.  Some of this is justifiable.  Some of this most certainly isn’t, but the decision of what a kid is ready for rests with the parent.

Which brings us to the recent Supreme Court Decision regarding California’s ban on selling “violent” video games to people under 18.  The Court threw out CA’s decision citing a variety of reasons, none so strange as those of Justice Antonin Scalia.  Saying that video games are no different than books . . . I’ll just stop the good Justice right there.  Video games are no different than books?  Believe that and I think we’ve put our finger on the problem.  Anyway, saying that video games are no different than books, if you do not restrict selling violent books to kids then you can’t restrict violent video games.

I suggest you read this fascinating article from Minnesota Public Radio.  In it you can watch as Scalia defends the decision to knock down the ban and in doing so cites various violent works of children’s literature.  He brings up Snow White, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel.  He also brings up Odysseus, Dante, and The Lord of the Flies.  It all gets rather strange when Clarence Thomas disagrees with Scalia (!) and then brings up, of all people, John Newbery.

John Newbery, the publisher often credited with creating the genre of children’s literature,removed traditional folk characters, like Tom Thumb, from their original stories and placed them in new morality tales in which good children were rewarded and disobedient children punished.”

Putting aside the idea that Newbery “created the genre” of children’s books, I’m fascinated by this use of literature for children to either support or detract from this decision.  The “violence is always with us” versus “children must be protected” arguments are as old as time.  I just didn’t think they’d play out on such a grand stage.  Thoughts on the matter?

Thanks to Boni Ashburn for the link.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. We were just talking about this topic in our critique group this week. There is such a huge difference between movies (or video games or TV) and books. Kids create images when they read. They can close a book or conjure a vague or blurry image if they read something that they’re not quite ready to process. But when they watch something, the images are forced upon them. It’s why as a parent I was always more careful about what my kids watched versus what they read.

  2. I think the storytelling sophistication of an ambitious video game like Bioshock is comparable to that of The Hunger Games. In both cases, the violence serves a narrative purpose and falls into the cartoonish category. Something like Grand Theft Auto, on the other hand, is filled with more realistic violence that is largely gratuitous. I can’t think of a children’s book that would compare (thank goodness). I think if violence can serve a purpose in children’s lit, then the same can be said for video games, but there are also plenty of games being sold to kids which are filled with violence for the sake of violence and have no other redeeming qualities. There’s a voluntary ratings system for games, just like for movies, but unfortunately it is too often ignored.

  3. i have problems with both scalia and thomas in general, and when they end up on opposite sides of an argument it can be dizzying to have to pick one or the other side. add children’s lit to the mix and i feel like my head is going to explode.

    if it truly comes down to a case of “violence is always with us” and “protect the children” i’m going to come down on the former, but the justices using children’s lit to frame their decisions is right up there with having authors defining the law. the problem is that the comparison between video game narratives and fairy tales is apples and oranges. they have different goals, different audiences, and for the most part different effects on the audience, both physical and psychological.

    one could equally argue that artists have given us graphic depictions of war in the past using lithography and that there is no difference between those images and war photos from the 20th century because, technically, they are both media that use methods of reproduction, but that argument ignores the depiction, transmission, and purpose of those messages. i think scalia and thomas attempted to use a hot button emotional approach to the law as opposed to actual legal reasoning.

  4. Mark Flowers says:

    I personally hate video games of all stripes, and despise gratuitous portrayals of violence (particularly violence perpetrated by men against women, which I understand happens a lot in GTA).

    Nevertheless, this conversation makes me pretty uncomfortable. Of course video games are different from books are different from TV is different from movies. And, btw, books are different from fairy tales for that matter. Different genres, formats, forms of representation, etc. But I don’t think it’s as simple as saying “video games are different.” Or, “video game violence is gratuitous.” For one thing, one person’s gratuitous, or over the top, is another person’s redeeming quality. For another, I don’t think it is at all easy to find an intellectually cogent way of segmenting video games off from all the rest of those media–especially since video games are largely made up of pieces of all of those other genres. And I think to try to segment them is a dangerous argument, which is probably (part of) where Scalia was coming from.

    I also think we, as librarians, need to separate the issue of intellectual freedom from the specific legalities of first amendment law. Scalia and Thomas have detailed knowledge of first am. jurisprudence, and one of them might be right, but I don’t think that bears on what we, as purveyors of information, should believe about the proper role of intellectual freedom. In other words, intellectual freedom and the first amendment are not interchangeable–what’s permissable under our country’s legal structure is not always the right thing.

  5. I just interviewed Chris Finan, president of ABFFE about exactly this on the podcast (which misses you, Betsy!) If you’re interested:

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Ah, I can always count on you to keep your finger on the pulse of such conversations, Katie.

  6. As a gamer, middle-grade fiction fan, and teacher of readers, I want to weigh in here. I find this a very curious equation, video games and children’s books. Obviously neither justice has a good grasp on gaming (or children’s literature, for that matter) and they appear to be struggling for a logical comparison. The nature of gaming as media has been a hot topic lately in the gaming circles I follow. I think most gamers feel that video games are not taken seriously as media. It feels like the justices are taking the easy way out by picking another media and drawing comparisons, rather than looking at the games and treating them on their own. Books do not allow the reader to take control of the main character and make it do whatever she or he wants. I probably should read the full opinion, I would hope they go farther than just comparing.

    One other thought (and I realize this is a rambling collection of thoughts, sorry) – regarding video games. I appreciate Stephens comments about more ambitious video games. There are definitely games with story and depth – and then ones with gratuitous violence, much like there are thoughtful films with violence – and then there are slasher horror films. (see, now I’M making comparisons.)