Regulating Video Games: Must Government Mind Our Children?

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Legislators have a seemingly insatiable appetite to censor onbehalf of parents and families. A variety of labeling or censorshipschemes have been considered by lawmakers in the past for music,movies and comic books in the name of helping parents shield theirchildren's eyes and ears from potentially objectionable content.The latest incarnation of this old habit involves recent proposalsby federal, state and local legislators to regulate "violent videogames."

Of course, even in the days before "Pong" and "Pac-Man"revolutionized the world of children's entertainment, kids foundmany ways to play interactive games that included violent themes.Take the classic games of "Cops and Robbers" and "Cowboys andIndians": children pretend to rob banks and shoot cops dead; toyguns or imaginary weapons are aimed at opponents; losers aresupposed to "play dead." Fast-forward to the present and the debateover video game regulation. Some critics and concerned legislatorsare claiming that the modern-day equivalent of Cops and Robbersmust be regulated by government to protect minors from thepurported ill-effects of interactive video games. The logic here isfairly straightforward: If kids are exposed to violent imagery invideo games, they will become aggressive children or violent adultslater in life. Although unable to muster credible evidence provingthis thesis, legislators across America have been introducingmeasures that would regulate home video games or coin-operatedarcade games on these grounds.

For example, Indianapolis and St. Louis passed laws banning thesale of violent video games to minors. (Both measures were struckdown by federal courts as violations of the First Amendment.) AndGovernor Gary Locke of Washington recently signed a law that wouldprohibit the sale of games to minors that depict acts of violenceagainst law enforcement officers (this law is also being challengedin Federal Court and is likely to be struck down as anunconstitutional restriction of protected speech). In addition,Congress is now getting involved. Rep. Joe Baca (D-CA) recentlyintroduced H.R. 669, "The Protect Children from Video Game Sex andViolence Act of 2003." This bill would impose fines on anyonewho sells or rents, "any video game that depicts nudity, sexualconduct, or other content harmful to minors." There are manyproblems with such regulatory measures:

* Little evidence of a link between video games andaggressive youth: Here's an interesting statistic: Whilethe video game industry was exploding between 1994 and 2000,juvenile (ages 15-17) violent crime arrests dropped by 44% andyoung adult (ages 18-24) arrests dropped by 24% according to theU.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice andDelinquency Prevention. While that does not necessarily ruleout any relationship between video games and youth violence, itcertainly should make policymakers pause before rushing tolegislate. Incredibly, the Washington State law was enacted despitea report by the state's own Department of Health saying "it may beconcluded that the research evidence is not supportive of a majorpublic concern that violent video games lead to real-lifeviolence." Further, a major study on youth violence by the U.S. SurgeonGeneral's office in 2001 also confirmed that youth violence hasdeclined significantly nationwide and noted that academic researchhad not shown any significant correlation between video games andyouth violence. And a 1999 Australian government study entitled "ComputerGames and Australians Today" noted, "There is little evidence tosupport fears that playing computer games contributes substantiallyto aggression in the community." Other scholars have stressed thepotential benefits of video games for children. A recent study in Nature suggested thatplaying action video games actually improves mental attentivenessand visual skills. And University of Wisconsin linguistics expertJames Paul Gee, author of Power Up: What Video Games Have to Teach UsAbout Learning and Literacy, argues that video games aidin the cognitive development of children by challenging them tosolve complex puzzles. Finally, in overturning the Indianapolislaw, Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appealspowerfully argued that, "People are unlikely to becomewell-functioning, independent-minded adults and responsiblecitizens if they are raised in an intellectual bubble. To shieldchildren right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violentdescriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming;it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we knowit."

* Self-regulation is working: In 1994,the video game industry established the Entertainment SoftwareRating Board (ESRB), a comprehensive labeling system that ratesover 1,000 games per year and has rated more than 8,000 games sinceinception. The ESRB applies five different rating symbols and over25 different content labels that refer to violence, sex, language,substance abuse, gambling, humor and other potentially sensitivesubject matter. And it must be a pretty good system because no lessan authority than the self-appointed media violence watchdog Sen.Joseph Lieberman has called the video game rating system "a model"for other industries to follow. Coin-operatedvideo game operators have also devised a descriptive parentaladvisory labeling schemes for games played in arcades orrestaurants. As a result, a very descriptive labeling system isavailable to parents to monitor the video games their childrenplay.

* Government regulation could easily cross the line intofull-blown censorship: Why would industry voluntarily ratecontent if the threat of fines or prosecution looms overhead? Facedwith fears of repercussions, there is a real risk that the industrywould likely stop rating games altogether since there would be nopenalty under current proposals for not labeling content to beginwith. In that event, consumers are the losers since they won't haveaccess to valuable, reliable, and credible information about theage appropriateness and content of the games they're thinking ofbuying. Of course, if industry responded to such proposals byabandoning voluntary ratings, lawmakers would quickly allege"market failure" and propose a mandatory rating and labeling schemeinstead. Once that line is crossed, lawmakers will be forced tomake content-oriented determinations that could easily run afoul ofthe First Amendment. The courts would not allow legislators toregulate books or magazines in this manner, and there is no reasonwhy video games should be any different.

* Parents should judge what's best for theirchildren: While the preceding arguments are quite damning,the most powerful case against government regulation or censorshipof video games is far more simple: It's none of their business. Ina 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 areunlikely to recognize that different parents have differentdefinitions of what constitutes acceptable fare for their children.The eye of the beholder makes a difference and in a free society itis the eyes (and ears) of parents that should decide what is in thebest interests of their children.

In conclusion, as David E. Rosenbaum of The New YorkTimes noted in a 2001 column, "Some serious social problems inAmerica may not have good legislative solutions. A case in pointcould be sex and violence in entertainment." Indeed, peacefulsocial persuasion and civic pressure are often a very powerfulalternative to government regulation. When it comes to the gamesour children play, industry self-regulation and parentalsupervision, not government coercion, offers the optimalsolution.