In the wake of the tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Aurora Colorado, legislators have been looking for ways to curb gun violence. Much like comics and films in the past, video games are now a popular target to attack for supposedly causing or promoting violence.
A new Bill – the Video Games Rating Enforcement Act – proposed by Representative Jim Matheson (D-Utah) seeks to limit the sale of violent or adult video games to minors. The Bill would make adhering to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) rating system, which has always been voluntary, a mandatory requirement. It would also impose fines on any retailers selling “Mature” or “Adults Only” titles to minors; a requirement that the Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA) highlights is only present in the porn industry. The ECA has been outspoken about the new Bill, arguing that it would stifle creativity since it would force indie developers to obtain ESRB ratings, which can be expensive.
The Bill seems to ignore the California law that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2011. The Court found that the law, which would have prohibited stores from selling video games the state deemed too violent to anyone under 18, was unconstitutional because it violated free speech. Representative Matheson acknowledges that his Bill may have some constitutional questions to face, but believes that the issue of violence and video games needs to be discussed and dealt with. He previously introduced the Bill in 2006 and 2008, both times unsuccessfully. Matheson seems to be coming from a place a genuine concern, but his facts may be skewed. Much like movies, rock music, and comic books in the past, video games are the demonized media of our day. It’s easy to visualize a link between killing in a virtual environment and killing in the real world. No other form of media allows its users to manipulate and interact with a virtual world in such a way. It can be frightening, especially with the common misconception that a connection between violence and video games is fact.
Nancy Polosi (D-California) defended video games by pointing out that many countries, like Japan, have some of the most violent video games and yet the lowest crime statistics and that the connection between popular culture and violence is not all that clear. She calls for more scientific research on the connection before writing new legislation. Following the Sandy Hook shootings, President Obama also asked for another look at the correlation between video games and violence. It’s become increasingly common for video games to be viewed as a definite cause of violence, but there has to be more facts and fewer assumptions. This is a serious and important threat on the freedom of video games. Most forms of media enjoy an initial heyday where rules don’t seem to apply, but with widespread use and popularity comes government regulation, concerned parents, and the moral majority.
People like Frederic Wertham, who tricked generations of parents into thinking comic books cause kids to go insane, and William Hays, who wrote the Hays Code that kept horrible things like interracial relationships from movie screens, are waiting around the corner to pounce on our ability to enjoy uncensored video games. Laws like the one proposed by Matheson or the one in California that was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court will continue to crop up year after year, but we have to be vigilant and we have to make sure that what our leaders and what the public believe reflect the facts and not fear. What we don’t need is another heavily regulated industry that has to wait forty years to be set free again.