The Entertainment Software Association has announced the launch of the Video Game Voters Network, an organization for American adults who play computer and video games. The group hopes to quiet a bill that, if passed, would restrict video game sales to minors.
The organization was created in response to repeated efforts by elected officials nationwide to regulate or restrict the sale of video games based on content. Such legislation has consistently met with defeat on constitutional grounds, and the ESA itself has been at the forefront of such opposition.
The ESA is a trade group that represents video game publishers in the United States. They’re the same group that owns and operated the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the world’s largest gathering of video game publishers and developers, which returns to Los Angeles in May.
The Video Game Voters Network’s current focus is to raise awareness of and opposition to the Family Entertainment and Protection Act (FEPA), a bill introduced in November, 2005 by Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Evan Bayh (D-IN). Visitors to the Web site can register and arrange to send their senators copies of letters opposing the Act.
It’s all Hot Coffee’s fault.
Hot Coffee is a “mod” that could be applied to a best-selling Mature-rated game called Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. With the patch applied, users got an eyeful of sexually explicit content that was already in the game, though hidden from normal view before. That content was inconsistent with the game’s rating.
Hot Coffee got both the game’s publisher, Rockstar Games, and the ESRB into a lot of hot water with elected officials, the media and consumer groups. The video game industry has long been under scrutiny by legislators—Lieberman has been pounding on it for years to clean up its act—but this made it the cause celebre for public officials across the nation to take up the cry of “protect the children!”
Cases have popped up in which unhinged individuals kill or assault people and then find lawyers to represent them who call on exposure to video games as the cause. Those sure haven’t helped.
Neither has the bleating of Florida attorney Jack Thompson, who has made it his personal crusade to abolish violent video games. He first came to national attention back in the 1990s when he pitted himself against rap group 2 Live Crew, insisting that their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be violated Florida state obscenity laws. Thompson has also represented the parents of teens killed in school shootings, which he has unsuccessfully tried to tie to violent video games.
The fox ruling the henhouse
The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) provides age ratings and content descriptors for most games sold in retail stores in the United States. ESRB ratings are a voluntary system, but many retailers refuse to sell games without a rating on the box.
The problem with the ESRB is that it’s owned by the ESA itself. And in the mind of its critics, that’s like the fox ruling the henhouse—they claim the ESA has a vested interest in making sure that games get the ratings they need in order to sell or get on to the store shelves of major retailers.
Now, most major retailers have stated policies that restrict the sale of games rated M (for Mature, available to gamers 17 years and older) or AO (Adults Only, for gamers 18 and older). In fact, having such policies in place is a prerequisite for them to join the biggest retail trade group—the Video Software Dealers Association.
Retailers should ask customers trying to buy M or AO rated games for proof of age, such as a photo ID, much in the same way that you’re supposed to get carded for alcohol or cigarettes.
But the perception among legislators and others is that some retailers don’t enforce these policies. That’s led to laws in California, Michigan, Illinois and elsewhere to pass legislation that fines retailers or criminalizes the sale of such products to minors.
That pesky First Amendment
So far, the ESA has had a spotless record—each time one of these laws is passed, they take it to court. And invariably it’s shot down on constitutional grounds. State-enforced restrictions on the sale of video games violate the first amendment, the ESA’s lawyers have said, and Federal judges agree.
What’s more, judges are also very wary of legislation that attempts to blur the line between violent content, such as what’s found in video games, and sexual content, such as what’s found in pornographic books, magazines and videos. There are already a lot of precedents that have been set that find imagery of violence is more protected as a form of speech than highly sexualized content.
Under the terms of FEPA, the federal government would enforce penalties of up to $5,000 against retailers convicted of selling Mature or Adults Only-rated games to minors; it also calls for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the ESRB to find out whether they’ve been properly rating games.
What’s alarming about this, in the eyes of video game activists and the ESA itself, is that this isn’t a state bill. This is a national bill that’s being considered in the United States Senate. If it’s passed, it would impose regulations across all 50 states. So the stakes have gone up.
With almost every generation of adults, there’s something to set off an air of moral panic. Back in the 50’s it was Rock ‘n’ Roll and Elvis’ gyrating hips. A generation before that it was jazz and gin. Life goes on and society adapts and assimilates these new, foreign influences. And eventually we’re better for it.
So I suppose it was inevitable that the generation that spawned acid rock and free love would eventually latch on to something that they find distasteful in today’s pop culture—enough so that they consider it deviant behavior that poses a menace to society. And this time the bugaboo is video games.
Video games aren’t new, and what’s ironic here is that with each passing year, the average age of the video game player gets a bit older. I’m in my mid-30s and, by most accounts and demographic studies I’ve read, am fairly average in my video game playing habits.
Researchers certainly don’t have a consensus about the effect violent video games have on children. Some research says that it doesn’t affect kids at all, some research says it does.
But the desire to protect our kids is strong. And it’s perfectly valid. I say that as a father of three kids myself. My wife and I impose rules on what games our kids can play, what ESRB ratings are acceptable, and how long they can play them each day. And I expect any other parent to do the same.
What bothers me—and why I ultimately support the Video Game Voters Network, is that I don’t want to have my rights as a parent superseded by government authority. I want the buck to stop with me in deciding what’s right for my kids. If there are retailers out there who are making it too easy for my kids to get their hands on games they shouldn’t, I’ll bring my business elsewhere. Adding a layer of government bureaucracy to this activity certainly isn’t helping me, and I sincerely doubt it’s going to be an effective deterrent for any young person who’s just bound and determined to get their hands on something they shouldn’t.
At the end of the day, Will Rogers was right: You just can’t legislate intelligence and common sense into people.