Commentary

Regulating Video Games: Parents or Uncle Sam?

By Adam D. Thierer
July 14, 2003

Long before “Pong” and “Pac-Man” revolutionized the world of children’s entertainment, kids found many ways to play interactive games that included violent themes, such as “Cops and Robbers” or “Cowboys and Indians.” Beyond being somewhat politically incorrect, these games contain some violent themes that some parents might find objectionable. Children pretend to rob banks and shoot cops dead; toy guns or imaginary weapons are aimed at opponents; losers are supposed to “play dead.” But no one has ever seriously suggested that government should regulate these games on the grounds that they might incite youth violence.

Fast-forward to the present and the debate over “violent” video game regulation. Some critics and concerned legislators are claiming that the modern day equivalent of Cops and Robbers must be regulated by government to protect minors from the purported ill effects of video games. The logic here is fairly straightforward: If kids are exposed to violent imagery in video games, they will become aggressive children or violent adults later in life. Although unable to muster credible evidence proving this thesis, legislators across America have been introducing measures that would regulate home video games or coin-operated arcade games on these grounds.

For example, Indianapolis and St. Louis passed laws banning the sale of violent video games to minors. (Both measures were struck down by federal courts as violations of the First Amendment.) And Gov. Gary Locke of Washington recently signed a law that would prohibit the sale of games to minors that depict acts of violence against law enforcement officers (this law is also being challenged in Federal Court and is likely to be struck down as an unconstitutional restriction of protected speech). Now, Congress is getting involved. Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) recently introduced H.R. 669, “The Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act of 2003.” This bill would impose fines on anyone who sells or rents, “any video game that depicts nudity, sexual conduct, or other content harmful to minors.”

There are many problems with such regulatory measures. To start, there’s little evidence of a link between video games and aggressive youth. While the video game industry was exploding between 1994 and 2000, juvenile (ages 15-17) violent crime arrests dropped by 44 percent and young adult (ages 18-24) violent crime arrests dropped by 24 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. While that does not necessarily rule out any relationship between video games and youth violence, it should make policymakers pause before rushing to legislate. Major academic and government studies have also looked at the question of video games and youth violence and found no significant correlation.

Second, self-regulation is working well. In 1994, the video game industry established the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a comprehensive labeling system that rates over 1,000 games per year and has rated more than 8,000 games since inception. The ESRB applies five different rating symbols and over 25 different content labels that refer to violence, sex, language, substance abuse, gambling, humor and other potentially sensitive subject matter. It must be a good system because the self-appointed media violence watchdog Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) called the video game rating system “a model” for other industries to follow. Coin-operated video game operators have also devised a descriptive parental advisory labeling scheme for games played in arcades or restaurants. As a result, a descriptive labeling system is available to parents to monitor the video games their children play.

Third, government regulation could easily cross the line into censorship. If legislators threaten industry with fines or prosecution for mislabeling games, voluntary labeling will likely be abandoned altogether. Parents would lose access to valuable, reliable, and credible information about the age-appropriateness and content of the games they’re thinking of buying. Of course, if industry responded to such proposals by abandoning voluntary ratings, lawmakers would quickly allege “market failure” and propose a mandatory rating-and-labeling scheme instead. The courts would not allow legislators to regulate books or magazines in this manner, and there is no reason why video games should be any different.

Finally, the most powerful case against government regulation or censorship of video games is that it’s none of government’s business. In a free society, parents should decide what their children see, hear, or play; Uncle Sam should not serve as a surrogate parent. After all, “one-size-fits-all” forms of content regulation are unlikely to recognize that different parents have different definitions of what constitutes acceptable fare for their children. The eye of the beholder makes a difference and in a free society it is the eyes (and ears) of parents that should decide what is in the best interests of their children.

Adam Thierer is the director of Telecommunications Studies at the Cato Institute.