Regulating Video Games: Must Government Mind Our Children?

June 24, 2003 • TechKnowledge No. 52

Legislators have a seemingly insatiable appetite to censor on behalf of parents and families. A variety of labeling or censorship schemes have been considered by lawmakers in the past for music, movies and comic books in the name of helping parents shield their children’s eyes and ears from potentially objectionable content. The latest incarnation of this old habit involves recent proposals by federal, state and local legislators to regulate “violent video games.”

Of course, even in the days before “Pong” and “Pac‐​Man” revolutionized the world of children’s entertainment, kids found many ways to play interactive games that included violent themes. Take the classic games of “Cops and Robbers” and “Cowboys and Indians”: children pretend to rob banks and shoot cops dead; toy guns or imaginary weapons are aimed at opponents; losers are supposed to “play dead.” Fast‐​forward to the present and the debate over 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 interactive 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 Governor 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). In addition, Congress is now getting involved. Rep. Joe Baca (D-CA) 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:

* Little evidence of a link between video games and aggressive youth: Here’s an interesting statistic: While the video game industry was exploding between 1994 and 2000, juvenile (ages 15–17) violent crime arrests dropped by 44% and young adult (ages 18–24) arrests dropped by 24% according to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. While that does not necessarily rule out any relationship between video games and youth violence, it certainly should make policymakers pause before rushing to legislate. Incredibly, the Washington State law was enacted despite a report by the state’s own Department of Health saying “it may be concluded that the research evidence is not supportive of a major public concern that violent video games lead to real‐​life violence.” Further, a major study on youth violence by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office in 2001 also confirmed that youth violence has declined significantly nationwide and noted that academic research had not shown any significant correlation between video games and youth violence. And a 1999 Australian government study entitled “Computer Games and Australians Today” noted, “There is little evidence to support fears that playing computer games contributes substantially to aggression in the community.” Other scholars have stressed the potential benefits of video games for children. A recent study in Nature suggested that playing action video games actually improves mental attentiveness and visual skills. And University of Wisconsin linguistics expert James Paul Gee, author of Power Up: What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, argues that video games aid in the cognitive development of children by challenging them to solve complex puzzles. Finally, in overturning the Indianapolis law, Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals powerfully argued that, “People are unlikely to become well‐​functioning, independent‐​minded adults and responsible citizens if they are raised in an intellectual bubble. To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it.”

* Self‐​regulation is working: 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. And it must be a pretty good system because no less an 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‐​operated video game operators have also devised a descriptive parental advisory labeling schemes for games played in arcades or restaurants. As a result, a very descriptive labeling system is available to parents to monitor the video games their children play.

* Government regulation could easily cross the line into full‐​blown censorship: Why would industry voluntarily rate content if the threat of fines or prosecution looms overhead? Faced with fears of repercussions, there is a real risk that the industry would likely stop rating games altogether since there would be no penalty under current proposals for not labeling content to begin with. In that event, consumers are the losers since they won’t have 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. Once that line is crossed, lawmakers will be forced to make content‐​oriented determinations that could easily run afoul of the First Amendment. 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.

* Parents should judge what’s best for their children: While the preceding arguments are quite damning, the most powerful case against government regulation or censorship of video games is far more simple: It’s none of their 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.

In conclusion, as David E. Rosenbaum of The New York Times noted in a 2001 column, “Some serious social problems in America may not have good legislative solutions. A case in point could be sex and violence in entertainment.” Indeed, peaceful social persuasion and civic pressure are often a very powerful alternative to government regulation. When it comes to the games our children play, industry self‐​regulation and parental supervision, not government coercion, offers the optimal solution.

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