22 October 2010

Hard Times for the Games Industry - by Kyle Roucis

      Posted 10/19/10 03:09:00 am   For the uninitiated, the games industry is currently facing a crisis.  Relax, it’s not as bad as everyone has been saying.  In fact, every other form of entertainment has gone through this crisis in the past, and while there were some faux pas and years of repression they turned out OK, right?

Of course, the issue I am speaking of is the sale of “violent, mature video games to minors.”  There are many well-funded politically or religiously affiliated groups lobbying to make a law stating that the sale of mature-themed video games to minors would be illegal, enforceable by governmental policy.  Most of the games industry sees this as an affront to their First Amendment rights and their ability to produce and sell any game they choose.

Once again, this attempt at censorship and regulation has happened to almost every other entertainment medium in the past: books, movies, comic books, TV, etc.  The naysayer arguments, as always, are that “exposure to violent media products leads to aggressive behavior in children.” 

Notice they don’t specifically say “violent video games” but instead label it “violent media.”  I doubt they are going to lobby that selling rap to kids should also be illegal (not that big of a mental leap, is it?). 

These protestors point to studies showing that kids exposed to violent video games tend to be more aggressive and that the U.S. military employs the use of game-like simulations to desensitize soldiers (http://www.parentstv.org/PTC/videogames/VGResearch.asp).  To be clear: I am in no way claiming that these studies are false or attempting to disarm the issue at hand.

So let’s break it down, every last bit of it.  What are the arguments for censorship? What are the arguments of the games industry?  What is the potential harm of such censorship?  What are the potential consequences of ignoring this issue?  What can we do to reach a mutually beneficial middle ground?  What is the likely outcome of this crisis?

What are the arguments for censorship?

Strangely, this one is very simple: the future.  Most of the arguments in favor of censorship (the ones that count, anyway; don’t give me any of that “violent games are obscene” bullshit) center around children (or “minors” as defined by law, age 17 and under). 

The theory goes that violent video games reinforce aggressive behavior in minors, providing positive feedback for exploiting violent actions.  On many levels this is rational, scientific, provable, and in general, very likely.  I’m here to tell you that the above assertion is likely true.  A myriad of experiments, tests, studies, and the like have gone into analyzing the effect of mature media on the young mind.  Most of them point to the fact that exposure to such media can have a significant impact on a developing minor.  Pretty scary stuff.

What are the arguments of the games industry?

This is where things get fun (for me at least).  Almost everyone in the games industry agrees with the potential harm of violent video games in regard to minors.  Ask any game developer you can find, they will probably admit that such games can affect a potentially negative change in a child’s behavior, left unchecked.  But that’s really not the issue here.

I realize I’m breaking this up mid-topic, but this next section is so important that it needs it’s own line.  It’s nothing new, nothing ground-breaking.  Many have said it before me and it will remain one of the best arguments against censorship in media long after this blog has been deleted:

Kids aren’t stupid.  Parents aren’t stupid.  Making violent games illegal will only force kids to bend the rules.  They already do it with other illegal goods (aren’t you glad your tax dollars are going toward something that works? ). 

Kids aren’t stupid; they know what they are getting into when they open a game box with a half-naked dude wielding a blood-soaked chainsaw on the front.  But here’s the big kicker (I hope you are sitting down): this is all the parents’ fault.  That’s right, I said it.  Get your pitchforks and torches, because this is all the PARENTS’ fault.

“Grimless, are you mad?  Have you lost your marbles?  The KIDS are the ones playing the games, having their behaviors altered by gore, not the parents!”  And I would say “That’s the problem!”  These people who are lobbying for censorship don’t want to spend the time to guide their children (like they should).  They are content with having the governmental safety net make their parenting decisions for them. 

How many of these parents do you suppose know what the ESRB rating system stands for, or even where to find it on the box?  How many do you think check the rating and consider it before purchasing a game?  How many do you believe actually take the time to watch their child play these games; analyzing, discussing, experiencing, and understanding what is happening?  My bet: almost none.  They don’t want to make the decisions, so they will FORCE everyone to have their decisions made for them.

Let me put this another way, abstract it out to the ridiculous.  Let’s say that tomorrow a new law goes into effect that says that it is now illegal for minors to consume breakfast cereals consisting primarily of puffed rice and sugar. 

This would eliminate Cap’t Crunch, Trix, Cocoa Puffs, and the like.  Now imagine the mindset behind this new law was that engendering healthy eating habits in minors is absolutely essential to solving the obesity issue.  This is all quite rational and surprisingly easy to imagine.  But breakfast cereal!  Ludicrous!  PARENTS should be making these decisions, not politicians and judges.

What is the potential harm of such censorship?

Well, just the law against sale to minors wouldn’t be THAT bad.  It would suck, yeah, but that’s not the intended audience for most of these games anyway.  Not that simple, I’m afraid.  Really, the industries fear is that video games will be denied First Amendment protection altogether. 

Additionally, this may open up similar laws for other media, potentially making R rated movies a controlled substance, certain comic books may be controlled or even banned or...OH SHIT!  The point is that censorship of any sort is a slippery slope.  Once subjective judgement is brought into the courts on media, there is no telling what is and what isn’t acceptable without squashing someone’s rights.  In short, we fear a widespread control of entertainment and especially the loss of First Amendment protection for video games.

What are the potential consequences of ignoring this issue?

We don’t know.  And that, really, is what is fueling this entire debate.  Much like global warming, everything we understand about the situation points in a scary direction, but the actual effects are virtually non-existent.  However, premature restriction could kill games as a medium before it even gets rolling.

What can we do to reach a mutually beneficial middle ground?

- Retailers need to take some responsibility to educate parents about rating systems and provide information about questionable sales.  If a retailer you shop at does not do this, talk to them about it.  If you notice they don’t do anything about it after mentioning it, stop shopping there and discourage friends shopping there.  This is how capitalism works.

- Parents need to grow the fuck up.  Parents need to be involved in their child’s gaming experience, taking just a few minutes to talk to them about such games and just do SOMETHING about the whole issue.

- These lobby organizations need to stop and think.  Hard.  Harder than they thought possible.  A law is not going to solve this.  Ever.  Turn your attention to something more needed and important (like tax reform).  If these lobbyists still feel this is an issue, go LEARN ABOUT IT before approaching your congressman.  Play some games.  Figure out how games are distributed.  Find out who you are effecting and if that change is really what is needed to solve the problem.

- Finally, developers need to stop making shit games.  The majority of violent video games are bland, meaningless, horrible examples of games (see MadWorld, Blacksite, Unreal, Quake, Doom, etc) which make this kind of thing really hard to fight against.  Additionally, this mars the image of the entire industry and does not move the medium forward.  Stop it!  Make something meaningful (you know, with a message?).

What is the likely outcome of this crisis?

Sadly, I’m terrified that these proposed laws will be passed.  Why?  Because the people making the decisions are as disconnected from games as possible.  They will only see the scare tactic of “Games hurt teh childrenz, OMG!” and be forced to pass the laws based on rational analysis of skewed data.  Yeah, it’s a downer, but I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.

Wrapping up I would like to say that I think this whole issue (and arguments of censorship in general) is a bit of an insult.  These disconnected entities fear our medium.  And instead of working to understand it, they would rather fight it, destroy it. 

Worse, they don’t think we can manage ourselves.  They feel THEY must step in to help us do the right thing in a situation where choice is the entire problem space.  Oi, longwinded, sorry.  As you can see this is an issue I am quite passionate about and I really fear for the industry and medium that I love so much.  Keep an eye on this.  I know I will and I plan to raise hell if shit goes south.  Until next time, keep gaming!

    Comments
Robert Boyd
19 Oct 2010 at 10:20 am PST

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