You can’t legislate common sense with games

Lawmakers love to be seen as doing something, anything, on their constituents’ behalf. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that efforts like Utah’s H.B. 353 continue to happen, even though they make for lousy policy.

Utah’s senate bill, a so-called “Truth in Advertising” bill, would fine retailers who sell M-rated video games to minors up to $2,000 per incident. A twist in this law makes specifically targets retailers who advertise the ESRB ratings system that most commercial games use if that retailer fails to adhere to policy regarding who can buy a game.

Laws attempting to restrict the sale of M-rated video games to minors have been tried before, numerous times in numerous states. Each time, the laws have been overturned, once they’re brought to the federal courts through appeals by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), a video and computer game industry lobbying group.

Violence in video games has been an issue in American politics for decades. Ever since games like Night Trap for Sega CD and Mortal Kombat came to home systems, politicians have been decrying video game violence and calling for restrictions to prevent them from getting into kids’ hands. That issue exploded when Grand Theft Auto III (and more recently IV) was released, and it shows no signs of abating.

The ESA counters that laws like the one proposed in Utah run afoul of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and, every time, a Federal district court judge has agreed with the group. Judges have ruled over and over again that video games are entitled to the same protections under the First Amendment as other forms of protected speech.

For its part, the ESA isn’t trying to force violent video games into the hands of kids—the group acknowledges that M-rated video games shouldn’t be in childrens’ hands. But it firmly believes that the ratings system that the ESRB has developed is an effective way of keeping those games from kids, when it’s combined with effective advertising and parental education.

You’d think that after a while, legislators in the United States would get the point and that they’d start to work with the industry instead of against it. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case.

I guess the bottom line is that this is a common-sense thing. And as the old saying goes, you can’t legislate common sense.

I’m the father of three—my oldest turns 14 this year. And we’ll watch a lot of movies together, including action films with lots of explosions and even a bit of sexiness. But PG-13 is where I draw the line. I’m not about to sit down and watch Friday the 13th with my older son.

In the same token, I’m not willing to let him play games that are rated M for Mature by the ESRB. The ESRB’s ratings system is a purely voluntary measure, much like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) movie rating system—there is no government law mandating either systems’ use. But the systems work.

Still, I always find parents who will let their kids play M-rated games. I often ask these parents, “Would you let your kids watch porn too?” And the answer is usually a shocked “No.”

Well, if that’s the case, then why would you let your kids play a game designed for adults?

It’s because some parents don’t see a video game as the same as a movie. It’s a game, after all. But that’s silly, because they should consider them both similarly.

No one would deny that strip poker is a game. But is it a game for kids? No way.

I hope that some day legislators finally get the message and start working with the industry instead of pointlessly railing against it. But unfortunately, common sense is as lacking in state legislatures as it is in some homes. And you can no more legislate common sense among politicians than you can among their constituents.

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