Column – Games shouldn’t be treated like pornography

September 25, 2010 — Leave a comment

Originally published in The Daily Toreador.

Like rock &’ roll and comic books before them, video games are currently the prime suspect for all the evil that plagues our nation’s youth.

The state of California has been trying to ban the sale of violent video games to minors for years now. In a 2007 article, website Ars Technica reported that, all told, the California government had wasted more than $1 million of taxpayers’ money in trying to pass legislation banning the sale of violent video games to minors. Every attempt failed.

And yet, here they are again.

California is still trying to fight a battle it has been losing for the last five years. Traditionally, courts have sided with groups such as the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), arguing that California’s proposed law went against First Amendment rights of free speech. Earlier this year, however, the Supreme Court agreed to hear both sides of the argument, so we’re back to battle.

Some states side with California, some against. Texas is one state that seems to be on California’s side.

Now, the question some people might be asking is, “What’s so wrong with the law?” Indeed, prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors seems like a noble thing, not a 1984-esque one. Even the people behind California’s proposed law are quick to assure all adults that violent games would not be banned outright, and anybody could still enjoy them provided they’re the proper age.

Said lawmakers argue that some media are not protected by the First Amendment. Hardcore porn would be an obvious example of this, but the people behind this proposed bill also refer to a 1968 case, Ginsberg v. New York, which effectively banned the sale of magazines like Playboy to minors.

Would this mean that a game like “Grand Theft Auto” or even “Halo” could, in the future, be shelved only behind the kind of blinder racks you see hiding risque images of pornographic magazines in gas stations? Surprisingly, this possibility has actually been discussed.

One reason this law is worrisome is that no such rules would apply to movies. At least, not yet. If it’s suddenly the government’s job to stop stores from selling “Resident Evil,” the game, to minors, then who’s to say it should also be its responsibility to prohibit the sale of “Resident Evil,” the movie? The violence level is about the same. Would music be the next victim? Books?

The law also brings in a major problem: Who’s to say what’s appropriate and not appropriate to sell to a minor? The government would have to devote a ton of money every year to panels that judge each and every game.

Another big issue with the law is that it’s a waste of time. Why? Well, currently, the video game industry is self-regulated, much like the film industry. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board is the video game equivalent of the Motion Picture Association of America. While a game would get an “R” rating from the MPAA, a game might get an “M” from the ESRB.

Likewise, just as movie theater attendants will check a youngster’s ID before they sell him or her a ticket to an R-rated movie, the ESRB requires that stores check the IDs of people buying M-rated video games.

Does this work? According to our own government, yes. The Federal Trade Commission filed a report back in 2007 that actually found that it was much easier for a minor to purchase an R-rated film or CD with a parental advisory warning than it was for a minor to purchase an M-rated game. All told, the FTC found that the games industry was doing a good job prohibiting the sale of violent games to minors.

So, why is California bothering to waste money to introduce a law that isn’t necessary?

California currently argues that video games, being an interactive form of entertainment, are more harmful to minors than other mediums, such as film. The problem is, they’ve never been able to show this.

Recently, 82 scholars and researchers signed and filed a brief that outright refutes the state’s claims, saying that California is unable to show any evidence to correlate violent games with violent youths.

Furthermore, a recent report issued by the ESRB showed some enlightening statistics, including that the current average age of gamers is 34, and that only 25 percent of gamers are under the age of 18.

Even comic book legend Stan Lee, creator of such classic characters as Spider-Man and Iron Man, has stepped into the ring and publicly voiced his allegiance toward the game industry. In an open letter that can be found online, he recalls how comic books were under the exact same scrutiny games are now, which, looking back, he admits is “comical.”

Lee said in the letter that “if you restrict sales of video games, you’re chipping away at our First Amendment rights to free speech.” He urges gamers to join the Video Game Voters Network. I don’t disagree.

You can find more information at a variety of websites, such as GamePolitics.com, and I might post more thoughts on the issue on my personal blog at BrittonPeele.com, but in the end, it really comes down to paying attention to what your elected officials are doing.

If this thing gets passed in California &- though it hopefully will not &- Texas may be one of the first states to try to follow suit. Make sure that doesn’t happen.

I’m all for protecting minors, but you should also protect your constitutional rights.

Britton Peele

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Freelance video game critic for sites like GameSpot and GamesRadar. Amateur fantasy author.

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