Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich devoted a portion of his Feb. 3 State of the State speech to the state of youth entertainment, specifically violent video games. The governor is not amused, and he is committed to making his state the first to criminalize the distribution of such videos to minors.
Gov. Blagojevich has proposed a law to make the sale of explicitly violent or sexual games to under-18 consumers a Class A misdemeanor, carrying a punishment of up to a year in prison or a $5,000 fine. He also wants to require video retailers to label games for content and post signs in their stores explaining the rating system for the games.
In addition, the governor named a task force of educators, medical experts and parents to advise him on the potential harmful effects of suspect videos on minors. Last December, he urged the Chicago Transit Authority to cancel a contract for advertising a mature-rated video game on city buses.
Blagojevich is not alone in the campaign against violence in videos. Political leaders and community activists across the nation and across a wide political spectrum are targeting violent video games as a menace to children and a precursor to real crime.
Earlier this month, District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams announced that he was backing a bill targeting the sale of violent games. In Maryland, a bill sponsored by Delegate Justin Ross would impose a fine and jail time for vendors who sold or rented violent video games to minors. Similar legislation is before the Georgia Legislature.
In 2004 alone, according to Clay Calvert of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State, more than 20 states and local jurisdictions launched efforts to regulate the sale of video games. Even federal legislation pops up from time to time in Congress, but none has gotten very far.
It is quite clear that politicians and some community groups do not like these games. But millions of kids and their parents do like them. And while some contain blood-curdling violence, others are visually stunning, technologically advanced and creatively sophisticated. Sales of video games last year totaled $7.3 billion, just $2 billion less than movie box-office receipts.
Those who want to regulate the distribution of video games face some major hurdles, aside from the popularity and appeal of the games.
First is the Constitution. Courts have made it clear that video games are forms of expression deserving the same First Amendment protection as television, movies or books. Further, they have rejected the argument that there is a causal relationship between video violence and real violence.
In 2001, the Supreme Court let stand a ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down an Indianapolis ordinance regulating access to video games. In 2003, the 8th Circuit also ruled that such a law was unconstitutional, noting that “the government cannot silence protected speech by wrapping itself in the cloak of parental authority.”
In addition to the constitutional barrier to these kinds of laws, there are some inconvenient realities.
The video-game industry voluntarily set up a rating system to guide parents and young consumers. Vendors are supposed to require proof of age before selling M-rated games to anyone under 17. Some of the largest retailers don’t even carry adult-only games. And, according to an industry survey, the average age of a video-game player is 30 and the average age of a buyer is 36. When the buyer is a minor, parents are involved in the purchase 83% of the time.
Rather than attempting to dictate taste and behavior through law, politicians and activists might focus more of their energy on public-awareness campaigns, the independent rating system, and encouraging vendors to “card” more unaccompanied minors. That would be a much better way to go, not only because it’s First Amendment-friendly but also because it works.
Those who push for laws based on exaggerated science and a low opinion of the moral and emotional fiber of young people and their parents’ judgment should think through the logic of their efforts. If we can harness the law to punish any form of expression based on the assertion that it might cause bad acts, or disfavored attitudes, then what is left but a dismayingly homogenized and narrow range of expression, reflecting only the dominant passions and prejudices of the moment?
When dealing with expression that some of us don’t like, it is all too tempting to exploit fear and ignorance. It is all too easy to propose laws to ban it. It is not easy, however, to decide who has the maturity to distinguish fantasy violence from that appearing on the nightly news or in any number of professional sports.
Those decisions shouldn’t be left to a legislator, a jury, a merchant or a police officer. They should be left to a parent.