Are video games a corrosive, pernicious cancer on society, corrupting our nation’s youth? Or do they represent a nascent, wholly misunderstood medium? Video games have stirred controversy since Pong, but as the medium has matured, the cries for regulation have intensified. A California bill (under review) would make it a felony to sell “violent video games” to minors. Essentially, it puts video games in the same class as cigarettes and pornography.
When video games appeared in the early ‘70s, they were castigated for a host of perceived offenses (teenage truancy being chief among them). But the technical limitations of the time allowed video games to fly under the radar. Once the technology caught up, allowing more realistic depictions of violence, the controversy exploded. In 1993, senate hearings were convened to investigate the industry’s marketing practices.
The whole episode led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), a self-regulatory organization which assigns ratings to games. Similar to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), participation in the ESRB is voluntary, though in practice, it’s become a prerequisite. It’s just good business—just as theaters refuse to show unrated movies, retailers refuse to stock unrated games.
In 2005, the “Governator”, Arnold Schwartzenegger, signed a bill making it a felony to sell violent video games to minors in California. The bill, AB 1179, was soon struck down as unconstitutional. But the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to review the decision.
AB 1179 delegitimizes video games in the worst possible way. By depriving video games of first amendment protections, it firmly settles the question of whether gaming constitutes an artistic medium. The bill intrinsically links violent video games with aggressive behavior, and even those not exhibiting aggression purportedly suffer “psychological harm from prolonged exposure.” I find the implicit comparison to PTSD disturbing.
To qualify as a “violent video game,” the violence must appeal to “deviant or morbid interest of minors,” be inflicted upon a human-like character in a manner which is heinous, cruel, or depraved, and be lacking in artistic merit. Setting aside the question of which benighted government official will decide whether a game’s violence is “artistic,” the bill also supersedes the ESRB by establishing a separate ratings system. Each “violent video game” shall be labeled with a “solid white ‘18’ outlined in black.” Violators face a fine of up to $1,000 per offense.
Under the ESRB rating system, games are given a rating from “eC” (Early Childhood) to “Ao” (Adults Only). In practice, most games are either “E” (Everyone), “T” (Teen), or “M” (Mature). Said ratings are prominently displayed on the front of the package, and on the back, the rating is reiterated along with a detailed description of the game’s content (“violence”, “suggestive themes”, “nudity”, etc.). Despite all this, parents claim the ratings aren't descriptive enough. How would a 2x2” “18” improve matters? The answer is clear—the bill is not meant to aid parents. It’s designed to take power away from parents.
Why all the hubbub? What makes video games different from other entertainment mediums? Most critics would cite their interactive nature. Senator Leland Yee, who introduced the California bill (AB 1179), said that, “Unlike movies where you passively watch violence, in a video game, you are the active participant and making decisions on who to stab, maim, burn or kill.” Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, U.S. Army, (Retired), author of “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,” has labeled first-person shooters like Halo “murder simulators.”
But it’s highly unlikely that one could become an expert marksman by playing X-Box. The factors involved in marksmanship (breathing, recoil, stance, hand and finger placement, etc.) are not replicated in video games. In most games, you point, shoot, and hit your target 100% of the time. And I think that most gamers (even young ones) can distinguish between video game violence and real-life violence. In other words, being an “active participant” is a highly-overrated phenomenon.
Moreover, video games are experiencing the same backlash as other virgin mediums in their infancy. A study from the American Psychological Association noted that, “Fears about video game violence also fit into a sociological and historical context of fears of new media.” Indeed, Shakespeare’s plays were considered low-brow entertainment. Novels, TV, and movies are accepted works of art but were, at one time, considered blasphemous. Even Plato spoke out against the “corrupting influences” of his day—plays and poetry.
The California Bill is a disturbing encroachment on first amendment liberties, and it takes power away from parents. Moreover, it delegitimizes video games by declaring them corrupting influences instead of meaningful works of art like movies. The MPAA ratings scheme, while ubiquitous, is voluntary. No fines are levied for letting minors into R-rated movies. Why should video games be any different?