TCS Daily

Throwing the Book At Video Games

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 20, 2005 12:00 AM

I've written here before about how efforts to ban violent videogames are probably a bad idea. But there's no idea so bad that politicians in Washington won't get behind it, especially if doing so can be characterized as being "for the children." Now the effort to ban violent videogames is, according to the Wall Street Journal, going national:

"Yesterday a trio of Democratic senators with presidential ambitions introduced federal legislation that they believe can pass constitutional muster.

"The legislation, unveiled at a press conference by Democratic senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Evan Bayh of Indiana, would essentially codify the industry's current voluntary rating system. It assigns games letters from 'EC,' meaning appropriate for early childhood, to 'AO' for 'adults only.' Retailers who sell games rated 'mature,' 'adults only' or 'ratings pending' to children under 17 could face fines of $5,000 per violation."

Call me crazy, but I think that Congress has more important things to do than regulate videogames. I also think that this is a dumb move constitutionally, substantively, and politically.

Constitutionally it's a dumb idea because videogames are speech, every bit as much as, say, books. Members of Congress would never introduce legislation to criminalize the sale of violent-themed books, though, because they understand that. In our society, book-banning just isn't done. But as the courts have repeatedly noted, that difference in cultural perception isn't matched by a difference in legal treatment. Politicians -- and, for that matter, journalists -- tend to think there's a difference, because a lot more of them read books than play computer games. But that's more a reflection on how behind the times they are than a meaningful difference. And since it's hard for me to believe that a rating system for books would pass constitutional muster, I have considerable doubt that it will do so here.

Substantively, a ban on violent video games is also a bad idea. I've written here before about the important role that videogames can play in preparing kids for life (and there's a whole chapter on this topic in my forthcoming book, An Army of Davids) but I could do worse than just quote Judge Richard Posner from the opinion in AAMA v. Kendrick:

"People are unlikely to become well- functioning, independent-minded adults and responsible citizens if they are raised in an intellectual bubble. No doubt the City would concede this point if the question were whether to forbid children to read without the presence of an adult the Odyssey, with its graphic descriptions of Odysseus's grinding out the eye of Polyphemus with a heated, sharpened stake, killing the suitors, and hanging the treacherous maidservants; or The Divine Comedy with its graphic descriptions of the tortures of the damned... 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."

Follow the link, too, for an extensive discussion of why videogames shouldn't be treated differently from books.

But I think the killer objection here is that the decision will be a political disaster. The videogame bill is really a piece of pre-election Presidential positioning. But lots of voters -- especially those elusive "youth voters" whom the Democrats have been pursuing for the past couple of election cycles -- play videogames, and they're not likely to respond favorably.

This is another example of how behind the curve politicians in Washington are when it comes to technology issues. My question is, if they can't even get the opportunism right, how much can we trust them on the other stuff?

Glenn Reynolds is author of the forthcoming An Army of Davids.


Thank the Moral Conservatives
...and this is only the beginning. The federal policing of free speech by morally correct politicians is a danger advanced by the Conservative Evangelical agenda. As Dr. David Walsh of the National Institute on Media and the Family puts it 'the big problem with video games is that the makers are selling violence and deviant behavior while hiding behind a ratings system that is mostly ignored.' -- Focus on the Family (December 2, 2005)

I dunno, but this seems to remind me of the hearings held on music during the time of the Clintonistas and chaired by no other than Algore.

Regardless of WHO is behind it, its the same concept. Someone thinking that the government needs to take the roll of parent to prevent 'children' from having access to terrible stuff. What I wonder is just where in the **** is mom and dad in this? It seem that if they were doing their parenting thing, they'd be supervising their kid's activites.

I ain hurtin nobody
Anything anybody does for hours at a time for days on end, into weeks and months, has a profound impact on who that person is, what they stand for, what motivates them and how they interact with others. This is common sense. Try to run quantitative experiments on rats if you just can’t accept what is qualitatively obvious. If your claim continues to be that games, whose object is to kill, and whose pleasure is derived from the graphic illustration of extremely violent death, has no impact on the psyche of those who must play them hundreds of hours, much less on the developing minds of children, than I believe you must again be showing extreme cognitive dissonance (how could it be denigrating since you do it, right?) or simply lying. Can’t you understand that responsible parents do not want their children engaging in games whose pleasure is derived from psychopathic brutality. Can you even see beyond the enormous vested interests in gambleing, ****ography and violent video to understand that they represent an extremely destructive influence on our society; or are you going to continue to insist that they represent free speech. The real clown is the joker who says violent and psychopathic role-playing is free speech, while those who question unrestricted access to those games, are not exercising free speech, they’re trying to censure free speech. Again, nobody’s laughing but you. Why would you argue against labeling games and restricting perversion from developing minds unless you were well aware that your biggest paying audience were those developing minds? If you want to know the trueth about anything just follow the money trail, and if it ever was actually possible to totally censure violent gaming, than the corporate lobby writing your check wouldn’t have funds to pay you for your shill. Yes it is the parents’ responsibility, but it is the responsibility of society to govern in support of the parents’ mission of bringing well suited citizens, rather than vicious socio and psychopaths, into American society. The obvuscative quandary that you keep dragging the rest of us into in order to support your own aggrandizement, social control vs individual rights, does not exist except through your own creation. Individual rights only extend beyond societal rights if societal rights are doing you harm. Yea, I know, we’re tryin to keep you from makin a buck off selling violent gaming to our kids. ‘It, its like keeping them from reading the odyssey’. Ha, well it must really hurt since you keep crying and telling jokes with your nose all red.

Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness
LIBERTY (1) The condition of being free from restriction or control. (2) The right and power to act, believe, or express oneself in a manner of ones own choosing. (3) The condition of being physically and legally free from confinement, servitude, or forced labor. Synonym: FREEDOM

Youth Vote
The funniest part of this to me is that a party who has made a real effort to gain the youth vote is pursuing this. Politics is all trade-offs and here we have family values trumping the youth vote.

I have to agree with the author. If you can't get the opportunism right, how can you be trusted with real decisions? :) How exactly would retailers be expected to verify the age of their customers? Many of whom won't yet have drivers licences.

"Excuse me sir, I see you're looking at a game rated for 13 and above. Are you planning to buy that as a gift? Yes? Ok, do you have the birth certificate of the intended recipient and can you sign this waiver that says she won't allow her younger friends to play? Thanks."

Silly. All these age related restrictions are just about worthless. Anyone remember that guy... you know... the one who'd been in high school about 3 years longer than everyone else... the one who would *buy*. How about the first person who got their license? They were probably the one who bought the cigarettes... Kids are constantly testing the limits and view all rules at that age as parental type preferences. All these laws will amount to is a *minor* hurdle to those determined young men who want to frag something in the privacy of their own home.

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