Thoughts on Video Game Legislation

This is hitting close to home. According to Game Politics, the Washingon, DC City Council held a hearing on a video game bill today. From the bill (full text):

“The ultra-violent and sexually explicit content of video and computer games rated M and AO violate contemporary community standards, and, taken as a whole, appeal to prurient interests and morbid and depraved interest in violence in minors.”

“Video games rated M and AO by the ESRB, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value to minors.”

Sounds scarily similar to what Illinois Senator Deanna Demuzio said last month:

“Video games are not art or media. They are simulations, not all that different from the simulations used by the U.S. military in preparation for war.”

Value Added

Every time one of these bills comes to light, legislators always seem to make a big fuss about how games lack literary value. It sounds suspisciously like the arguments that Frederic Wertham launched against comic books in his book Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954. Are video games the new comic books, destined to be vilified until some new form of entertainment media comes along to supplant its place as corruptors of the young? Possibly. New media has the tendency to make older people nervous or uneasy.

Strangely enough, comic books haven’t gone on to produce mass murderers or sociopaths. Society and troubled upbringings are the main culprits. All those violent school killings by teenagers were perpetrated by kids who had become social outcasts, who had not gotten the help they needed, who had not gotten the attention they needed, and who had very serious family and psychological problems. These situations were in place well before they started playing video games or reading comic books.

If legislators had actually bothered to play video games, and not just any out of the Grand Theft Auto series, they might be surprised at the depth, the creativity, and yes — the literary value that some games have. I’m not saying that all games are of equivalent literary value as Gaiman’s The Sandman or Orwell’s 1984, just as not all comic books and novels are literary gems, but how can one ignore the creative storytelling and the narrative that some games contain? How can one ignore the variety of experiences, entertainment and learning, that games provide?

Here is a quote from Stephen Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You, that shows another perspective:

Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying, which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical sound-scapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements, books are simply a barren string of words on the page…

Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children…

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion, you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you… This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one. [New Yorker book review, if interested.]

It was written half-jokingly, but the point of it is that games have much to offer players. Even games that don’t involve story — how can one deny the artistic merits? Not all games can be called masterpieces of art, but every single game involves artists to visualise the designer’s world. Games like Madden have artists working on them. Does that mean that those artists lack creativity or skill? I would argue that they don’t. Just because you’re stuck making the textures on buildings in EA’s next racing game, doesn’t mean that you aren’t an artist.

Commercial graphic designers certainly wouldn’t think that their works are devoid of creativity, despite their utilitarian objectives. It takes talent and skill to create striking and memorable brand logos. Architects, while they are involved in the creation of useful things such as buildings and bridges, also must take into account the aesthetics of their endeavours. Do these creations lack artistic merit? Some architects even create structures whose sole purpose is to beautify the landscape. People who direct pornography may believe they are creating art. Some commercial fashion photography might border on the pornographic to some viewers. Others may disagree.

I won’t say that I have never seen a piece of art that hasn’t offended me or been, in my view, absolutely tasteless, horrible, disgusting, without value, and even dangerous to young viewers (and a lot of mature viewers, too). However, art is very subjective. Who are legislators that they can tell us how to view an image, a game, a story? Shouldn’t it be up to the viewer to decide whether something has artistic or literary merit?

Access

On the issue of restricting sales of certain games; I’m not against M or AO games being restricted from purchase by minors. The reason the ESRB has rated them as such is precisely because they should be played only with a parent or guardian’s consent. Just as I would not advocate a minor reading American Psycho, I would not advocate a minor playing Doom 3 or Resident Evil 4. On this point, I agree with legislators. However, making more laws won’t solve the problem.

Let’s think for a second. Who has the money in a family? Who is supplying violent video games to children? The Cathode Tan entry in the last Carnival of Gamers makes a very good point on this issue. Parents are the main suppliers of (violent) video games to children.

Some key facts (from the Entertainment Software Association, emphasis added):

75% of heads of households play video games
30 is the average age of a video game player
43% of game players are aged 18 – 49
37 is the average age of the most frequent game purchaser
92% of the time, parents are present at the time games are purchased or rented
87% of the time, children receive their parents’ permission before renting or purchasing a game

There should be more education, not more legislation. Just as with comic books in the 1950s, I think it’s a lack of knowledge that scares people. All this media is new to them. They didn’t really grow up with video games. They only see the bad potentialities, and seek to protect the young from unkown horrors.

I’ll end with a comment I made in the Cathode Tan post I linked to earlier, regarding my experience working in a video game retail store:

So many of the parents who came were incredibly uninformed about what their kids were playing. The number of parents who were shocked when I told them why GTA: San Andreas has an M-rating was substantial. If parents refuse to get involved in what their children are doing for fun, that is their fault. It shouldn’t be up to the government to raise children.

  3 comments for “Thoughts on Video Game Legislation

  1. Dyannamika
    15 June 2005 at 09:55

    Well, of course I can’t help but comment on this. I find this problem comes often not only with Video games, but table-top RPGs in general. People who have a very small understanding of the mechanics, content, of the game condemn the entire media as diabolic or disasterous.

    I think an interesting comparison could be made between the rating of these games and the rating system of films currently… What differentiates a film from a video game? Lenth? Interaction? But a lot of the films made for children damn sure don’t have “literary, artistic, political, or scientific value to minors.”

    Of course, their argument is fallicous… for example the “candy bar murderer example.” All murderers eat candy bars, therefore candy bars drive people to murder. This argument of course, makes no sense.

    I guess I’m disturbed the most because I DO remember some of the videogames I played as a youngin’ and even now… I like them for the story. That’s why I spend hours on RPGs, because of the story.

    Video games can make people feel… emote… and that is one of the basic criterium of art-whether literary or painted, or drawn.

    I agree with you, Parents should make the informed decisions about buying these violent games for minors. As I understand… they are meant for an older audience, and is policy in most stores for these games to not be sold to young people. (I remember some stories.)

    Disturbing.

  2. 15 June 2005 at 12:36

    I’m not even going to comment on the ludicrous wording of the bill. I will however comment on the fact that even though the computer and video game industry did attempt to police themselves (or at least attempt to cover their asses) with the ESRB the government feels it’s not enough and must step in.

    Most (but not all) retailers do follow the ratings and will not sell them to children. The best they can do when a parent is purchasing a product is point out that it is M or AO rated and explain what that means. All it comes down to really is parents should be responsible for what their children are playing. If little Billy goes out and steals a car after mommy bought him a copy of GTA it’s not Rockstar’s fault it’s mommy’s for raising a child that can not distinguish between right and wrong (if in fact his mother or father even tried to instill those virtues in him).

    The law (if it passes and if it is even enforced) might help get those few ‘rouge vendors’ who don’t care about the ESRB in line. The thing I worry about is what kind of other changes could this law lead to…

  3. 15 June 2005 at 13:00

    Those are some interesting statistics towards the end.

    It really bothers me that in the midst of all the video game hysteria, parental responsibility continues to get a pass. I say this as the father of two children.

    Parents become aghast to find out that Grand Theft Auto may not be appropriate for little Johnny but never think that maybe a game named after a felony might not be the best choice for their child. There is something very wrong with this picture.

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