A Battle is Won, But the Cultural War Goes On

U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kennelly yesterday overturned Illinois' statute banning the sale of violent and sexually explicit video games to minors, calling it violative of the 1st Amendment right of free speech.

This ruling, the latest string in a series of legal successes for the game industry, points out that our problems are not judicial. Ultimately, the problem is that while gamers are today on average in their late 20s, and gaming as a pastime is widely popular throughout Generations Y and X, it is still widely perceived by those who hold political power as "for children". Broadly speaking, politicians' and policymakers' reaction to video games is skewed by the lens of their relationship to video games: They don't play them, their kids do, and so they react accordingly.

The cultural war around video games will continue until one of the following occurs:
1) Video games are neutered as comics were neutured; some level of regulation arising that would genuinely relegate video games to children's entertainment by making adult topics off limits. This would be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as games would be for kids because games not for kids would be banned.
2) Video games are able to establish themselves as a genuinely mature entertainment medium. Establishing maturity will require a multi-front campaign - demonstrating that games have artistic merit, demonstrating that games have adult players, and marshalling lobbies of gamers to apply political pressure.

To drill down on this latter point, the current strategy to demonstrate that games have adult players seems to be to lump in as many older and female gamers as possible by placing online chess, pogo, bejewelled, and the like into the discussion. Unfortunately, this undermines the cause more than it helps it, because it seems to say that the games that adults like don't include ultra-violence or sexual content. Instead, what needs to happen is that the maturity of the audience for games like GTA needs to be demonstrated -- what is the average age of the GTA player, really? At the same time, games that can artistically be compared to the likes of, say, Memento, need to be held up by the industry.

Original Comment by: Fallen
I very much agree with this blog. Gaming needs to shake the stereotype of being "for kids". Gaming is for everybody and mainstream America (and other countries) should know this. The thing is how would we go about doing a "campaign" for this cause?

Original Comment by: plangent
Physical age doesn't necessarily indicate maturity though. The most popular games in the US are targeted at people with a mental age of around 16 years old. The fact that a lot of the people playing them are in their 20s and 30s doesn't really change that. The problem I see in comparing games to fine art is that most games simply aren't up to the comparison. What deep insights into life does Halo offer? Has anyone ever cried after a game of Madden whose blood alcohol level wasn't dangerously high?

Arguing that games are adult entertainment will rely largely on facing the fact that adult gamers in the US are incredibly immature and have the right to be catered to accordingly. At least if there's to be any honesty in the argument.

Original Comment by: Dustin Hubbard
I don't know the specifics of all this but... why was this struck down as a violation of Free Speech?

Minors can't buy cigarettes, porn, beer, or rated R Movie tickets so... why should they be allowed to purchase Rated M & Above games? If they want them badly they can have their parents buy them, and if they go psycho after that you can blame the parents and not the industry. Maybe I don't understand this all clearly as I seem to be the minority opinion but I don't see what the big deal is of banning sales of Rated M games to minors.

Original Comment by: Brinstar
What some people are failing to see are the impacts that such legislation will have. Yes, minors would be, under law, restricted from purchasing M-rated video games. We don't want little Jane and Johnny getting a hold of GTA: SA, which is fine. However the implications for Free Speech are clear if you just think about the issues involved.

This sort of legislation basically results in heightened (or emerging) self-censorship on the basis that it would demonise M-rated games in the eyes of the public, causing games publishers, and therefore developers to censor their own content because they don't want their games being seen as "evil". The bottom line is at stake. If they think that they can't sell their games, the publishers will tell developers and designers: "Hey, we can't put your vision of the world you created into the game because we're afraid that it won't sell as many copies if we pushed the rating from a T to an M".

And of course retailers will also be affected by such laws, which would fine them for selling M-rated games to minors. Laws cost money to enforce, and this money could be better spend on serious crimes like rape, murder, homicide and piracy. The knock-on self-censorship effects would carry over to retailers, who already will not stock AO games. If the politicians' publicity stunts take hold in the public, perhaps retailers would be even less keen on stocking M-rated games.

Personally, I don't want my money spent making useless laws that will legislate the curtailing of freedom of expression and result in self-censorship. Laws cost money to enforce. Why should my money go towards legislation that is totally uncessary? Video games are not cigarettes or alcohol. Video games should be restricted in similar ways to other forms of media, not in the same way as drugs or potentially harmful substances.

The ESRB is doing a fine job. Parents need to educate themselves. It is not the Government's job to parent. These pieces of legislation, especially the one proposed by Sens. Clinton and Lieberman, are all political ploys, and something that could be dangerous to the industry. Parents already feel as if they know little about video games, without politicians' scaremongering tactics. Those who don't know anything about the content of video games will definitely be influenced by the publicity generated by the Clinton-Lieberman proposal and others like it.

Original Comment by: Dustin Hubbard
While I understand not wanting tax dollars to fund yet another project, especially since it's censorship I still disagree somewhat.

If the industry dares to venture out into making games with mature themes, heavy violence, and other such things then I think it's only fair that it has to face the consequences of that. Similar to what the movie and music industry have had done. Rated R Movies and Explicit CD's still make a ton of money because adults see them still and isn't that who we want seeing them in the first place? If a minor wants to see it then he has to go with a parent. If a minor wants a explicit music cd he has to have his parent purchase it, so why not if a minor wants a violent game he has to have a parent purchase it? Nobody's saying you can't make Rated M games, they're just saying if you do there will naturally be marketplace restrictions so keep that in mind. Initially the media may demonize rated M games but this will pass... They do this with music and movies from time to time as well and the continue to sell (heck sometimes it get the name recognition out causing them to sell even more).

You're right that parents need to educate themselves... but the sad fact is most parents will not. This is why I support this sort of legislation I guess because many parents don't keep a close eye on their kids with media and they probably should. In the end I guess to me the benefits outweigh the negatives, but I understand your points and you deserve to have an opinion just as much as I do. Basically this whole thing is just a safeguard, it will not be flawless but it will help. I hate scaremongering tactics as well but personally I don't believe Lieberman is doing this just for face time, now Clinton on the other hand... :)


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