To many players of video games, California’s attempt to criminalize the sale of violent games to children seems like a case of good intentions gone bad.
A number of adult gamers would agree that many of our favorite titles have no business ending up in the hands of impressionable young children. But do video games have the potential to warp a young mind to such an extent that retailers who sell a violent video game to a minor should face a fine of up to $1,000, or even, as a Michigan law proposed, jail time? Most gamers will tell you “no,” particularly in a climate in which a movie theater worker who sells a 12-year-old a ticket to see “Saw VI” and other “torture porn” movies faces no similar penalty.
The argument against California A.B. 1179 isn’t so much that children have a right to buy and play violent games, but that limiting retailers’ ability to sell them compromises free speech and represents an unnecessary intrusion by the government into the marketplace. It’s also worth quibbling with the fact the bill enshrines into the state’s legal code the notion that playing violent video games causes children to exhibit violent, anti-social behavior, a link that’s never been proved. (Most studies have focused on vague, “feelings of aggression,” a feeling I get during an average drive through the Novato Narrows on a Friday afternoon, or responding to hostile blog commenters.)
Schwarzenegger vs. Entertainment Merchants Association revolves around whether the government should criminalize the sale of violent games to minors the same way it does for things like porn, booze and cigarettes, or whether video games are a form of protected free speech, like novels or movies. Leaving aside the torturous “Are games art?” debate, anyone who’s actually played titles like “Grand Theft Auto III” or “Dead Space” chafes at the idea of games being lumped in with Hustler or Marlboros, rather than with “Pulp Fiction” or “American Psycho.”
But while the rationale of state Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown comes off as out-of-touch nannyism, the games industry is also guilty of being unreasonable.
Every time a new law, or proposed law, restricting the sale of games comes around, the folks at the Electronic Software Association beat the, “Big government is coming for your games!” drum, garnering predictable alarmism from the gaming media and lots of outraged e-mail campaigns waged by concerned gamers. While the ESA is right to fight A.B. 1179, and any other legislation it thinks unfairly restricts the free speech rights of the gaming industry, putting forth the notion that A.B. 1179, if approved, could radically alter the gaming landscape, leaving us playing nothing but sports simulations and Mario games, goes too far.
Yet that grim (if overly colorful) future is exactly the specter Electronic Software Association President Mike Gallagher hinted at when he told Kotaku on Monday that “gamers have a lot at stake … (The law) could have a distinct chilling effect … on the types of games that are made, the types of games that are marketed, and certainly the types of games that are sold, and how widely available they are. All of those things could be impacted.”
Let’s be realistic about this. Yee’s law punishes retailers who sell violent games to children. It doesn’t ban their sale outright, or open up game makers to any more lawsuits than they already face. Heck, parents who decide it’s OK for their kid to play “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” airport massacre scene and all, will be able to walk right into the store, kid in tow, and buy the game, just like they do now. The law couldn’t be more clear. Compared with proposed bans in other states and countries, it’s pretty tame.
And while it’s true that some retailers might opt not to carry some of the most violent games, for fear of inadvertently running afoul of the law, such a move seems unlikely for all but the most niche titles. There’s simply too much money at stake for stores to turn their backs on the next “Modern Warfare” or “Gears of War” game. As for less popular titles, we’ve already seen selective stocking in action. Back in 2007, Target announced it wouldn’t carry the game “Manhunt 2.” The world kept turning and the effect of Target’s decision was negligible at best.
In our world in which the average game player is older than 30, there’s simply too much demand for violent or mature-themed video games for publishers to just stop making them and retreat to some kind of “Mario Party” ghetto. Similarly, gamers have shown time and again that they’re a tech-savvy, politically motivated bloc when it comes to anyone regulating their games. If retailers stopped carrying violent games en masse, they’d face consequences, both from the multibillion dollar industry and from gamers’ migrating to stores that still carried the games they wanted to buy.
Is the Electronic Software Association right to fight Yee’s bill? Sure. But it’s hard to hear its statements and not think the ESA is making a play to rile up the base and keep gamers politically active, the same way the tobacco industry conjures up images of jack-booted ATF agents hauling citizens away for daring to smoke in their homes, or the auto industry for years resisted making more fuel efficient cars, claiming it would add several thousand dollars to the cost of every new vehicle.