April 10, 2008

Games Bad, Concussions Good

Tom Menino and a moralistic brigade want more laws in the state of Massachusetts to restrict the sale of videogames to young adults. Whether you believe that videogames are bad for kids or not, House Bill 1423 offers a very foggy set of criteria for determining what is harmful to children.

5 "Harmful to minors", matter is harmful to minors if it is obscene

6 or, if taken as a whole, it (1) describes or represents nudity, sexual

7 conduct or sexual excitement, so as to appeal predominantly to the

8 prurient interest of minors; (2) depicts violence in a manner patently

9 offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community, so as to

10 appeal predominantly to the morbid interest in violence of minors;

11 (3) is patently contrary to prevailing standards of adults in the

12 county where the offense was committed as to suitable material for

13 such minors; and (4) lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scien

14 tific value for minors."

I bet that, at some time or other, you have engaged in activities that "lacked serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." Do we need the state to be a parent? I think this expands on a bad precedent. Stephen King weighed in on the videogame issue in Entertainment Weekly.

What really makes me insane is how eager politicians are to use the pop culture - not just videogames but TV, movies, even Harry Potter - as a whipping boy. It's easy for them, even sort of fun, because the pop-cult always hollers nice and loud. Also, it allows legislators to ignore the elephants in the living room. Elephant One is the ever-deepening divide between the haves and have-nots in this country, a situation guys like Fiddy and Snoop have been indirectly rapping about for years. Elephant Two is America's almost pathological love of guns.

Right on, Mr. King. The legislature should be trying to solve real problems, not scapegoating videogames. And we already have a pretty strict labeling system in place. So, it's not as though people have no idea what a game contains before they buy it.


Speaking of elephants being ignored, we have young kids in Fall River engaging in unregulated "mixed martial arts" -- basically ultimate fighting -- without state oversight and with apparently great risk of injury. Check out the video on Boston.com. Kids hitting the mat hard without head protection. We have helmet laws that say an adult can't get on a motorcycle without a helmet. Heck, we have helmet laws which say a kid can't get on a bike or roller skates without a helmet.

But we have kids in unregulated "ultimate fighting"-style matches who hit the mat hard without head protection.

Local promoters say they are doing right by their fighters, keeping doctors at ringside and ambulances at the ready, and requiring pre-fight physicals and blood tests, just as they would, for example, if regulated in another state. But Dana White, president of the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship, said he wouldn't bring his organization to a state without oversight. The fact is, White said, no single authority in Massachusetts has any idea what promoters are doing, or not doing, or if they'll be ready when a fighter gets injured or worse.

"It's incredibly dangerous," said White. "It's insane is what it is. It's absolutely insane that fighting can happen without being regulated. I actually can't believe it's still happening in this country." [Emphasis mine]

Clearly, these kids need to be protected from videogames!

I submit that our legislators have their priorities misplaced, and that they should focus on real-world problems rather than scapegoating forms of entertainment.

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Posted by James at April 10, 2008 10:11 AM
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This is a difficult area.

I agree, the wording of the bill is far too vague. But is the spirit wrong?

The question is, do we have a responsibility as a society to protect children from harm? Yes. We do. As a society, do we have rules that protect our children from harm? Yes. Children are required to have vaccinations to enter school. Children are required to have schooling. Parents can and have been found negligent for denying their children medical care. (There are states that allow parents to opt out of vaccinations, I think this is a mistake.)

Do violent/sexual video games do children harm? I have not seen conclusive evidence of this, but my suspicion is that yes, they do. I have a paper in my "to read" queue that says they do, but I haven't read it yet so I don't know how strong the evidence is.

At the very least they present an unrealistic reality warped in an antisocial direction. To repeatedly expose a developing mind to this is probably doing that developing mind harm. We know from fMRI evidence that adults who were abused as children actually experience greater pain than adults who were not. Children who are bullied experience PTSD. Violence in youth can cause serious issues later in life. Does watching violence have a negative lasting effect? I think somebody will try to demonstrate that with fMRI.

If so, then we have a responsibility to protect children from that kind of damage, despite their parents. I'm all for choice, provided the choices don't harm others (offense, of course, is another issue).

Posted by: Maggie at April 10, 2008 1:56 PM
Do violent/sexual video games do children harm? I have not seen conclusive evidence of this

My argument is that, given that there is no conclusive evidence, our legislature should steer clear of bullshit and focus on real problems. For non conclusive stuff, we already have a system in place to handle this: parents.

Seriously, they're taking advantage of us with this BS. Why don't they tackle some of the actual problems that will help parents maybe have more time to spend with their kids?

Posted by: James at April 10, 2008 2:47 PM

Remember that in the '50s, Elvis and Rock & Roll were a detriment to our entire society...

Posted by: Patti M. at April 10, 2008 3:21 PM

Government dabbling in the vetting of popular culture is shortsighted, wrongheaded, a distraction. It not only reduces government effectiveness in handling real social problems (just by taking up time and effort) it reduces the chances of a wider acceptance of a progressive agenda that could actually do some real good because it gives conservatives a big-ass target and turns away people who might be progressive on more realistic issues.

Posted by: James at April 10, 2008 3:38 PM

Before Elvis, it was comic books.

There's a lot more choice in comic books now than there was then, and a lot of the stuff is shockingly gruesome. Worse than any video game I'm aware of. (No, I can't name comic book names, but I've seen the covers. You can't judge a book by its cover, but you can certainly judge the cover itself...)

But comic books are no longer a hot political issue, and video games are, so let's go for the easy win!

(And I'm not at all in favor of messing with comic books anyway... I'm just saying that if politicians really wanted to help children, they wouldn't do it by oversimplying a "popular" problem and playing on parents' fears.)

A more effective approach might be to improve enforcement of existing laws, and to help parents understand the existing laws and rating systems.

At DragonCon 2001, there was a session about... you know, I'm not sure what the official topic was, I think it was about women in the video game industry... but someone brought up ratings, and that's what the rest of the session was devoted to. There were a lot of parents at this session - most of them non-geeks accompanying their geek children - who didn't know much about the games, weren't really sure what the ratings meant, or how they could find out whether they'd be okay with their kids playing a specific game.

Granted that was 7 years ago, but I bet there are still a lot of parents who could use some guidance in this area. Most people, especially people who aren't interest in gaming themselves, do not attend these conventions and don't even know who to ask for advice.

I can't even figure out what the quoted passage above adds to existing laws, besides confusion. I think it would make more sense to look at the existing laws first. If those aren't being enforced adequately, then poorly-defined new laws aren't going to help at all. They may actually add loopholes to the old ones.

Posted by: Julie at April 10, 2008 3:44 PM

I understand your point that there are certain areas where parents have control and areas where only the government has control, and could the government please get their own ducks in a row before they start worrying about parental areas? I agree with you.

OTOH, I see the problem. We have a society that, before Elvis (and I'm not blaming Elvis), did not worship the adolescent. Those of you without children in the target demographic may not feel the social pressure that I feel from parents who are worried their children will not fit in. Parents who let other people's thirteen year old girls dictate the rules of their household, because they don't want their daughter to "miss" anything. God forbid anyone should miss the wisdom of a thirteen year old girl.

And many of these parents are very adolescent themselves. They are overworked and don't want to discipline their children, they are too busy for social lives and need for their children to like them. So they try to fit in with their children. It is a problem for us all if our society degrades. Our society has definitely improved in many ways since the 50's (tolerance of blacks, gays, women, advances in science), but in other ways we have degraded. We have free speech but we are not taught to engage our brains before we use it. We have many choices in the market place, but we don't weigh our decisions beyond what we want. We are stupid consumers. I'm sure there are more Dunkin' Donuts than bookstores, and the bookstores I see now are fewer and smaller. When I was a child, even when I was a young adult, there were two large bookstores in most of the malls. Now you're lucky if you have a tiny little "Borders express." I don't think that's Amazon. I think that's values.

And we think that every generation has the problems we have, that every generation thinks the one after it is worse, more stupid, more lazy. I don't know if that's true, it may be a comforting thought, but I don't think it's true. This generation is worse, according to teachers who have taught across the generations who say they've had to change their curricula because the sound-bite, video-game-enthralled youth of today can't get engaged in anything for more than a few seconds. At least there's ritalin, right? Don't worry if your consuming fried your brain, we've got drugs for that. Gosh, drugs used to be the only way to do that. How far we've come.

Posted by: Maggie at April 10, 2008 10:47 PM

I think the problem with the existing "law" if you want to call it that, is:

From ESRB.org

Although it does not have the legal authority to implement or enforce retailer sales policies with respect to computer and video games, the ESRB works closely with retailers and game centers to: a) provide in-store signage which explains the rating system; b) support their store policies pertaining to the sale or rental of Mature-rated games to minors; and c) help educate and train store associates and employees with regard to the rating

You'd like to think that places like GameStop, EB, BestBuy, etc. are policing their own - I have no idea if they are, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. If it's widely upheld and complied with, then further regulating the industry would be solving a non-problem. However, I also believe that anyone who tried to fire an employee for selling an "M" rated game to a ten year old would quickly be sued for (insert type of discrimination here).

Posted by: Bull at April 11, 2008 9:27 AM

Well, if kids can't get a violent video game, they can just sign up for ultimate fighting. Or hit someone with a stick.


Posted by: James at April 11, 2008 10:09 AM

Or buy a gun.


Posted by: Bull at April 11, 2008 10:23 AM

Oops. My bad. I thought there were already state laws banning the sales of M and AO games to minors, but there aren't.

I'm pretty sure there ARE laws to restrict movie sales based on rating, so I assumed there was already something similar for games. D'oh.

Regardless, it'd be simpler and wiser to base the law on the ratings than on the lengthy statement above. Of course it wouldn't be a perfect system - it'd be subject to the same flaws and abuses that the film rating system already has - but it would give parents some assistance in keeping the most graphic things out of their kids' hands, without opening the subjective "community standards" can of worms.

(Seriously, "prevailing standards of adults in the county"? Good luck with that.)

Posted by: Julie at April 11, 2008 11:26 AM
We have a society that, before Elvis (and I'm not blaming Elvis), did not worship the adolescent.

I remember my parents decrying parents who wanted to be best friends with their children, and that was three decades ago. Not that you were arguing that it was, but the issue is not completely new.

This may be a cultural or sociopolitical complaint rather than a purely generational one.

Posted by: James at April 11, 2008 12:24 PM

Well, this is a topic that is extremely relevant to me because I am in the video game industry. We talk about this a lot, and you all have great points. The comparison to comic books was a particularly apt one. I think the video game industry is in danger of facing something like the comics code that almost destroyed the comic book industry in the US. For evidence of this look at our comics and look at British comics, or Japanese manga, and you will see how juvenile most of our stuff has been. (Read Alan Moore's 'From Hell' or Spiegelman's 'Maus' then come tell me that comics are not a valid adult art form.)

I worked for Rockstar - makers of Grand Theft Auto, Bully and Manhunt - so I was right in the middle of it all. I saw the fear that adults have regarding games, it's the same fear they have for any tech they themselves don't use. I'm not saying their fears are unfounded, I don't think your 10 year old should be playing Dead Rising and God of War, but, you have to ask yourself, why did someone buy it for them? It says M for mature right on the cover. I also happen to know that places like EB and GameStop will advise you not to buy it if they know you intend to buy it for your kid. I'd like to see that become required by law.

I don't really think that games are damaging to kids and I think they actually can be helpful in that they help a child to act out in non damaging ways. There is a good book called "Killing Monsters" which talks about the role that game play has in childhood and how video games - even violent ones - can be beneficial to a child.

I don't think that parents have much excuse to not be able to monitor this source of entertainment. If you are worried go to a shop, buy some gamer magazines, read them, talk to the guy at the EB about the games your kid is interested in, she'll be glad to fill you in. Go online and search sites like metacritic for game reviews.

Going into a store thinking that all video games are for kids is like going into a video shop thinking that all cartoons are for kids and coming home with Akira - or worse hentai tentacle porn.

People also don't understand that the largest market for video games is in the 18-35 age range. That is why M rated games sell so well, it is also why they are made to begin with. Hell, I love Mario games and pokemon, but sometimes I want to play some Dead Rising and find neat ways to waste zombies.

As a game designer I can say that we want to have the ability to explore more adult situations in our games, and mature gamers agree. The ratings are not well publicized to parents, game industry is a bit insular in that way and that needs to change, but buyers have to be more aware of what they are buying. Ratings won't stop a clueless mom from buying the latest ultra-violent game so that her son won't feel left out.

As an example of how clueless everyone seems to be on game ratings I remember when Hot Coffee was rocking us and Jack Thompson was representing a grandmother that was suing the ESRB because GTA had a sex scene in it and she had bought it for her 14 year old grandchild. No one ever mentioned the fact that this granny purchased a game clearly labeled M for mature (meaning over 17 only) and then got angry that it had disagreeable content in it. Would that happen with movies? Maybe, but it would go nowhere and get no attention.

Games are pretend, gamers know this, even the young ones. Ultimately it comes down to the buyer to be aware of what she is buying.

(this is entirely my opinion and doesn't represent the industry as a whole)

Posted by: rui at April 16, 2008 5:15 PM

Thanks for that insight, Rui.

Posted by: James at April 16, 2008 5:20 PM

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