Violent Video Games Under Attack

Should this be protected? Image from Valve Co.

Can violent video games be as bad as pornography?  That is what the state of California is arguing.  On November 2nd, California will get a chance to prove that argument to the Supreme Court.  The state believes that ultra-violent video games are a serious danger to children.  They say the current age and content rating system self-enforced by the video game industry is not doing enough to prevent minors from playing adult games.

If California succeeds with their case, then video games will have to go through a government rating sytsem.  Depending on the content of a particular game, the government may find it to be ultra-violent or obscene in some way.  If so, the violent game would be marked with a two-inch square label on the front of the box. This label would be similar to the Parental Advisory stickers found on music albums.  Retailers would be fined up to $1,000 dollars for each game containing the label that was sold to a minor.

Various cases about violent video games have been heard before.  Courts have always ruled in favor of video games, stating that they are protected by the First Amendment.  If California succeeds, then the way games are created and sold will be dramatically changed.

Why California believes it has a case

Some California politicians disagree with past court decisions. They believe that some games can be considered obscene.  Author of the bill and California assemblyman Leland Yee is one of these politicians.

“We’re not talking about violent video games,” Yee said in an interview with MTV News.  “We’re talking about ultra-violent video games.”

The proposed legislation singles out games whose violence causes them to

Yee is at the forefront of the attack. Image from GayGamer.

“lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.”  These games also need to contain violence that “is especially heinous, cruel or depraved in that it involves torture or serious physical abuse to the victim.”

Yee argues that this bill is out of necessity.  “I would rather not do this. But enough is enough. Each year some of the stuff gets more and more outrageous,” Yee said.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board currently reviews games and rates them based on their content.  There are  currently five different ratings the ESRB uses: EC (Early Childhood), E (Everyone), E10+ (Everyone 10 and older), T (Teen), M (Mature) and AO (Adults Only).   Many politicians, including Yee’s chief of staff Adam Keigwin, do not think the ESRB is effective enough.

“…A federal trade commission study showed that well over half the kids 14-16 years old were able to purchase ultra-violent video games,” Keigwin said in an interview with Game Informer magazine.  “The ratings system itself is flawed.  They have an AO rating – they don’t use it even though the AO description says that it’s for extreme violence.  They’ve never rated a game AO based upon violence.  So why have it?  It sends the wrong message to parents who look at an M game and say: ‘Oh, well if it was so bad it would have gotten an AO rating.’”

Why the video game industry is worried

Many big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy refuse to stock games bearing the AO label.  Video game companies rely on these stores and consciously develop their games with this in mind.  Some games, like Manhut 2, have had to alter their content before being released to avoid the adult only rating.  Manhunt 2 was released in 2007 and featured executions the player could perform on in-game enemies.  The game was rated AO and delayed at the last minute so the game could be made less violent and rerated with an M.  To do this, the game blurred the brutal execution scenes.

Some video game developers believe that if California succeeds on November 2nd, they will have to tailor their games even further.  They are worried about losing creative liberty when making games.  Among these believers is Ted Price.  Price is the founder of Insomniac Games, a highly successful video game development studio.  Insomniac has made games such as Ratchet and Clank, Resistance: Fall of Man and Spyro the Dragon.

Price is worried about having to compromise his games. Image from Kotaku.

“As content creators, if there is a chance that our games will appear in an “Adults Only” section of game stores, we will have to restrict what we create to avoid going out of business. To me such a situation is tantamount to government censorship,” Price stated via his blog.  “If this law is upheld it could have a ripple effect across all other forms of media. Those who have sought to censor films, television, books, talk radio, and music will now have precedent to renew their fight against freedom of expression. In other words, this case is a very, very big deal.”

A local perspective

In Iowa City, an employee from a local video game store is very opposed to the California legislation.  However, he wishes his name and place of employment to remain anonymous.

“We’ll sell Grand Theft Auto IV to a 4-year-old because it’s not against the law,” the employee said.  “Parents are the ones who need to be responsible for their kids, not us.”

The employee states that he often saw children come into the store alone, using their parents money to buy games.  Parents had even come up to the employee telling him that if their child ever wanted a Mature rated game, it would be ok to sell it to them.

“Video games don’t turn their kids into violent murderers.  Parents’ kids are probably going to be murderers for some other reason,” the employee said.

Reverend Fitzpatrick believes video games "depersonalize" violence. Image from Iowa City Newman Center.

Reverend Edward Fitzpatrick believes that video games tend to legitimize violence.  Reverend Fitzpatrick is the Director of the Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City.

“Violent video games isolate you from the effect of your actions,” Reverend Fitzpatrick said.  “It makes violence seem ok.  It depersonalizes it.”

The pastor believes that it is the interactive nature of video games that makes them so influential on a child’s mind.

“Being allowed to shoot people without the fear of actually being shot back conditions kids to think that they can do this.  They have trouble separating reality from fantasy,” Reverend Fitzpatrick said.

Jayson Gegner, a graduate from the University of Iowa and former online writer for Total Gaming Network, is angry that the government is singling out video games.  He believes kids will find similarly harmful content in other media.

“This goes way past your local Best Buy electronics section.  Parents need to simply be aware of what their kids are doing.  This isn’t just with video games, kids can turn on the television and see something just as violent, if not worse,” Gegner said.

What do you think?

What happens on November 2nd could change video games forever.  Is California’s legislation an encroachment on the First Amendment?  Should the government be allowed to mandate what games are appropriate for children?  The slideshow below shows some examples of the ultra-violent games California politicians are talking about.  No matter how the Supreme Court rules, the video game industry is in for a big event on November 2nd.

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