Earlier this month,I went to the Boston State House to witness a hearing on House Bill 1423. The bill would amend Massachusetts law to explicitly include video games as in the list of media regulated with respect to content, and to additionally include violence that is "patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community" as a type of obscenity. Of course, being a public hearing, there was a fairly extensive docket for the Judiciary Committtee that day, including a bill to change access to criminal records (CORI) , judicial appointments, marijuana law reform, and something or other about casinos.
The first mention of the video game bill came from Rep. Dianne Wilkerson offered a few points. First, she said that the bill wasn't going to limit access to these games' intended audience, adults. Secondly, she pointed to a recent rise in violent youth crime in Boston neighborhoods and a need to stop the exposure of these "images and acts" to children. Her argument provided the backbone for the bill's ostensible purpose: stemming a tide of rising youth violence in Boston and surrounding neighborhoods by removing violent media from the hands of children. What I couldn't tell was whether she was suggesting this would have a practical, causal effect in stopping what is apparently a very real string of youth violence in the Boston area, or if this supposed to prevent future outbreaks, or if, more likely, this was a stand against violence or some other, perhaps less noble, symbolic gesture.
Next up was a panel of entertainment industry folks. Gail Markels opened the panel by laying out the industry's self-regulation associating, the ESRB. Since the ESRB had its own representative present, she didn't go into detail, but quickly moved on to mention that nine similar laws that passed in other states were struck down as unconstitutional, as video games had been time and again declared 'protected speech', and therefore covered under usual First Amendment protections. This, although may seem common-sense, is apparently not. Markels' suggestion was that the combination of parental 'lockout' controls and retailer restraint are both constitutionally viable as well as sufficient to protect kids from access to harmful content. The next speaker, a representative from the ESRB, spoke about the rating system itself, saying that it was an effective tool for parents to judge game content. They pointed to the existence of both the general age-range ratings as well as the labeling of individual content issues, which they argue provide more information than, say, the music industry's labeling of "EXPLICIT LYRICS" for music. Statistics came into play here, as the speaker suggested that 87% of parents with kids who play, know about the rating system and its levels content. The third panel member was the owner of a video retail store in the Dorchester area, who argued that the ESRB system in effect in his store was more than enough; they carded everyone and no child was allowed to purchase content rated 'M'; they offered something like like 67% 'denial of sales' rate. I'm not sure exactly what that means (67% of total sale attempts are stopped because they'd be in violation of ESRB guidelines? 67% of violations are caught? google doesn't help here!); I'll break chronology to say that the 5th panel member was from the Entertainment Merchant's Association , and continued this line of argument, saying that retailers don't want kids to get hold of these games and work hard to keep everyone appraised and informed about the existing ratings, and again reminded the Committee of earlier laws with much the same word.The fourth panel member, Kent Quirk, is a Boston-area developer and organizer of Boston Post-Mortem, who wrote about his words here. In brief, he presented an economic argument about the strength of video games in the Massachusetts economy. He mentioned developer luminaries like Harmonix and Linden Labs, academic programs at WPI (not others, but I digress). Games are big, they are growing, Massachusetts is home to some big names who soak a lot of money in the state, and that all goes away if the state puffs up its chest at them.
Essentially, the industry panel's arguments line up in a single thread:
- Current self-regulation of industry is enough to protect children from harmful content.
- Regulation enforced by the government will be found unconstitutional and will result in costly trials to establish that again.
- Even passing the act symbolically will send a message to game developers that Massachusetts isn't particularly welcoming.
Note that nowhere in here was a challenge to the idea that video games are harmful to children, either from a psychological, public health or historical approach. Nor was there any suggestion of the positive aspects of children having free access to games.
THE BILL ITSELF:
- Game Politics, affiliated with the /ECA [edited to remove incorrect affiliations, my apologies!], draws attention to the fact the language of the bill is very similar to others struck down in recent court decisions. Jack Thompson helped pen the bill. I'll leave that alone for now.
- The language of the bill appears to (my untrained eye) to specificly add 'interactive media' to the list of content regulated under state obscentity law (you hear that, nick montfort? they're coming for our computational art projects, maybe!); as PopMatters points out, the more important section would change the definition of obscene to include violence, for all media.
- The bill doesn't provide a strong definition of line between obscene and not-obscene violence. Perhaps it would use the existing ESRB standards? Perhaps, since it suggest the same line of 'community standards' that current sexual obscenity laws rely on, it would depend on judicial and prosecutorial review? A clause stating that the violent content "lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors" makes this even trickier, as many games potentially covered could be seen as having tremendous value in these respects- would discussing the 'sandbox play' aesthetics or the civilian AI in Grant Theft Auto count? If all people look at are the sensational surfaces and not the potentially complex systems (of play, procedure and meaning), then of course it's going to look ugly, and stupid too.
THE ARGUMENTS BEHIND THE SCENES:
The Boston Herald set a bit of the tone, pointing to "much bloodshed" in the Boston area in the past year. This is what gave impetus for Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and State Representative Christine E Canavan to co-sponsor the bill, as a means of combating youth violence. According to the Herald, Canavan supported the bill as a way of condemning violence in children: ""I think this legislation is a good idea. I don't want this constant barrage of violence on young minds and for them to think it is all right".
The Herald goes on to point out part of the thinking on behalf of the scientific establishment: the so-called "media effects" argument. They quote Dr Michael Rich talking about "killing simulators". Rich goes to talk about parents needing help controlling their children's access to this content. They also mention Larry Mayes*, "...Menino's director of Health and Human Services, [who] urged lawmakers to view for themselves some "Mature"-rated games, many of which award players points for shooting people, raping women or setting people on fire. Mayes pointed to several researchers who have found a correlation between such games and aggression." As Game Politics points out, critics of video games would be hard-pressed to find a game that includes rape, and scare tactics ought to be a no-no in public health matters.
But what is a subtler mistake, is that what is meant by 'awarding players points' is taken for granted. This highlights one of the significant challenges in talking about games: it often isn't clear to many people (critics and fans alike) what the rhetorical or expressive qualities of reward structures are. Are they implicitly always positive, or can a reward be hollow, satirical, ironic?
WHERE WE LOST EVEN IF WE WON:
But one of the stinging rules of rhetorical debate is that "silence is consent". DesIn short, the gaming community conceded the argument that violent video games have been proven harmful to minors. There are studies that challenge assertions that video games cause violent behavior in children, just as there is evidence pointing to the fact that violence nationally (in the US) has been in a downward trend for some years. There are studies documenting the fact that people who are inclined to violent behavior are more likely to consume violent media, but that it is neither necessary nor sufficient for that behavior. Craig Andersen is one scientist from the 'media effects' school who, although he believes there is evidence of a causal link between playing video games and engaging in violent behavior, recognizes that there are some complicating factors in the picture of games as 'murder simulators'; the recently-released Byron Review in the UK also presents a more complicated look at the issue. But none of that complexity emerged in this debate, and so it's inadmissible. Is this a place where the academic community should have been stronger? The fair representation of academic research is an incredibly difficult responsibility, but one I think that academics ought to held. At the very least, there's an need to advocate for a point of view here that is seriously underrepresented.
But there was a second loss in our silence. We accepted the framing that there is something dangerous here, and the only debate to be had is whether the industry is doing enough or if the government should do more. There was no discussion of social, cultural , or educational concerns with limiting access to games. By conceding that that studies have spoken, we ignored a discussion about why the results of all these conflicting studies might be more complicated than either side makes them out to be, and what role education, cultural and family discussion and media literacy play in how children participate in the world around them.
One of the things that has been drilled into my head by dint of my game design experience in both the industry and here at GAMBIT is how much of the play experience relies on activating a player's pre-existing intuitions and beliefs. Good design requires recognizing intuitive affordances, good stories often rely on well-established conventions and archetypes, and good aesthetics rely on literacies from other visual media, like cinema and photography.
A similar view often comes up the context of educational gaming: many people assume that the ideal model of 'educational gaming' is a program you put in front of a kid that will channel learning directly into their brain in some revolutionary way. This argument has been used before as well: video learning, textbooks, and the entire process of public education were deemed as technologies that would radicalize education by removing the previous generations' obstacles and allowing it to happen automatically. Anyone who has designed a game or tried to teach a single class should be able to discern the problem here: none of this happens automatically. Even if the content of the medium is distasteful, sinister or reprehensible and violent, there are forces (i mean this almost literally) that we miss when we assume a passive participant. Even if we view the content as a static, superficial mass, the meaning that it has can vary significantly depending on a wealth of other factors, including the skills of the individual in being able to think critically about the work. These things don't spring fully formed from one person's head into another; a fairly significant amount of navigation and mediation occurs. That's part of why they're called media, after all.
For instance, we could talk about why rewarding people for violence is at least unrealistic and at best a poor view of human relations; we could talk about society and power and satire in Grand Theft Auto; we could talk about moral choices and dilemmas in Bioshock. heck, come to think of it, we could talk about the role of choice in nearly all games. In history classes, we cannot 'blank out' periods that are uncomfortable or violent: we find a way of talking about the violence that illuminates greater meanings about civilization and humanity.Would it be different if someone had made arguments about the degree of participation available to readers, or actors, in interpreting motives, character and ideology from those texts? The arguments of the Free Expression Project arguing in favor of Media Literacy over Censorship seem like right steps in informing the public and policy-makers of this different approach.
I may be biased in my desire to see such efforts prevail, but one model of civic participation is to let the different biased sides have it out in public and see how it turns out. I know that can't happen until people actually pick up this half of debate and bring it into the discourse, both in and out of government offices. I can understand why a lobbyist group like the ESA might think it prudent to stay out of the cultural debates -- it's not as linear as arguing about the economic effects or legal precedents. But they are in the cultural debate, like it or not, and staying silent doesn't tackle the issues that well-meaning and smart but ill-informed people are concerned about. This is a part of the debate that needs to happen for sake of the industry, the artists and the players, and I think the debate about game vilence will continue to resemble, to use a violent metaphor for peaceful rhetoric, trench warfare, until we change the framing in cultural terms and talk about what's really at stake here.
Next up: The Byron Report from the UK, Morality in Games, and more on media literacy.