Gone are the days of Packman and Centipede. In today’s more extreme video games, players can rape prostitutes, blow up cars and burn people alive with the simple maneuvering of a joystick.
A bill authored by state Assemblyman Leland Yee would require California retailers to display these “Adult only” games separately from all others. It also mandates retailers to post a sign and make available brochures explaining the rating system to parents.
Last month the Arts and Entertainment Committee defeated Yee’s bill, AB1793, but two weeks later on April 27 upon reconsideration, it was passed with an 8-2 vote. The bill is now in the Rules Committee where it will either move to the Assembly floor or be referred to the Judiciary Committee for another policy hearing.
Yee says the $7 billion video game industry is vigorously lobbying against his bill. “It is quite troubling that the entertainment industry continues to fight any limitation on children having access to games that are clearly for adults only,” he says.
Yee, who holds a Ph.D. in child psychology, points out, “This is not passive observation. You’re doing something, you are maiming, burning. Coming from a background in psychology and understanding desensitization, I concluded this is the occasion to tweak the First Amendment and make sure minors are not buying these video games.”
The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) disagrees. It supports voluntary policies to restrict the sale of violent video games to those under age 17, but says any law limiting sales to adults is unconstitutional and unnecessary.
And whether violent video games encourage violent behavior is debatable. For instance, a study by the American Academy of Pediatric found that playing these games was connected to a 13 to 22 percent increase in adolescent violent behavior. But a report by the Washington State Department of Health concluded that “evidence is not supportive of a major public concern that violent video games lead to real-life violence.”
Dan “Shoe” Hsu, editor in chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly, says there’s a misconception that video games — even violent ones — are marketed for children. The average age of game players is 29, according to ESA.
“The perception is that this is entertainment for kids,” Hsu says. “People are worried that little 12-year-old Billy is shooting, driving recklessly, hopping in a car for prostitutes, but these are games being played by adults.”
Since video stores display R-rated videos on the same shelves with G- and PG-rated films, why should retailers be forced to segregate video games, Hsu asks. “The problem is these laws forced on the video game industry are not consistent with the movie industry.”
In 1996, the industry created a voluntary rating system: early childhood (EC), everyone (E), teen (T), mature (M) and adults only (AO). Laws that would ban minors from purchasing violent video games — which typically are rated M and AO — could be bad for sales, but Hsu says, “Most publishers don’t want these games to be sold to children. Kids shouldn’t be playing them. Personally, my biggest concern is whether the government should be involved.”
So far, the courts seem to be siding with the game industry. Last year, a federal appeals court struck down a law in St. Louis banning the sale of violent video games to minors. In Washington state, a federal judge approved a preliminary injunction against a similar law that was scheduled to go in effect last summer; it may eventually go to the Supreme Court, legal analysts predict.
Howard Combs, a business professor at San Jose State University, says Yee’s bill probably wouldn’t hurt video game sales, but he’s not surprised that the industry is lobbying against it. “People may fear this is the first step toward other legislation that is more intrusive and more restrictive of industry.”
Adam J. Keigwin, press secretary for Yee, says, “It is going to be a really tough fight. The industry is incredibly powerful and does not want any bill regarding their industry passed.”