Grand Theft Scapegoat

Crusading pols think they've found a defenseless target, but their jihad against video games is futile


This May, by a vote of 106 to 6, the Illinois state legislature passed a measure banning the sale of "violent" and "sexually explicit" video games to minors. The state's Democratic governor, Rod Blagojevich, is not about to veto a bill that he himself introduced and lobbied for, so its ratification as law is a forgone conclusion. The California Assembly is currently considering its own version of a prohibition on game sales to the underaged, and Washington, Indiana, and Missouri have already enacted similar laws only to see them struck down by courts on First Amendment grounds.

The Illinois proposal, ominously, pays no heed to the existing range of voluntary content ratings by the video game industry, which runs from Early Childhood (EC) to Adults Only (AO) and ostensibly allows game sellers to decide for themselves what constitutes "violent" or "sexually explicit" material. But statements by the prohibition's backers suggest an alternative reason for not simply specifying which Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) categories are off-limits to children.

In his message "to the parents of Illinois" Governor Blagojevich asserts that "Ninety-eight percent of the games considered suitable by the industry for teenagers contain graphic violence." In the unlikely event that Blagojevich is not simply abusing statistics—even Super Mario Bros. contains what you could describe as "graphic violence"—the upshot of his claim must be that the proposed legislation's content restrictions could apply to games approved by the ESRB for teens.

Video games are an appealing target for an itinerant public figure in search of a cause. Movies and music have energetic advocates, but it's difficult to find anyone who will defend content in games for their artistic value, or even on the on the grounds of freedom of expression. Often enough, the best argument made for games is that they are merely benign; but that's not the most effective response when the governor of Illinois claims, "Too many of the video games marketed to our children teach them all of the wrong lessons and all of the wrong values," or when a talk show host who frequently books strippers and porn stars musters the moral courage to blindside a gaming journalist about the injury that video games inflict on children.

It would not be fair to say that the arguments for video game criminalization are completely uncontaminated by evidence. But prohibitionists are highly selective about the data they present and careless once they've presented it, hoping to substitute raw emotional appeal for a plausible explanatory framework. Blagojevich, for example, points out that "experts have found that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors"—as if no more need be said about the causal relationship between playing video games and engaging in anti-social or criminal behavior. Video game players, in this mindset, are simply empty and infinitely corruptible ciphers.

There is no shortage of readily available, peer-reviewed literature on the relationship between media exposure and behavior, and the evidence does not support the prohibitionists' case. A 2004 study on "Short-Term Psychological and Cardiovascular Effects on Habitual Players" conducted by researchers at the University of Bologna concluded that "owning videogames does not in fact seem to have negative effects on aggressive human behavior." A recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted, "If video games do increase violent tendencies outside the laboratory, the explosion of gaming over the past decade from $3.2 billion in sales in 1995 to $7 billion in 2003, according to industry figures would suggest a parallel trend in youth violence. Instead, youth violence has been decreasing." In the absence of a wave of real-life, game-inspired carnage, Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor Cheryl Olson, writing in the journal Academic Psychiatry in the summer of 2004, advised that "it's time to move beyond blanket condemnations and frightening anecdotes and focus on developing targeted educational and policy interventions based on solid data."

Unfortunately, blanket condemnations and frightening anecdotes are likely to be with us as long as they prove electorally profitable. Any proposed limitation on the freedoms of minors has an immediate cunning to it: No one who would be directly harmed by such an initiative is old enough to vote, while the voting-age citizens who are susceptible to for-the-children appeals tend to outnumber those who treat such appeals with skepticism.

Moreover, since neither party contains a core of activists particularly concerned with the freedom to produce and distribute video games; since protecting games ranks decidedly lower on the agenda of most civil libertarians than protecting books, movies, or music; and since the gaming industry itself is too new to match the organizational strength of older media, politicians can attack the pernicious influence of Doom 3 and Halo 2 at minimal risk to themselves.

In addition to encouraging the parties to outdo each other in symbolic gestures about children's moral welfare, fears of explicit video game content offer an opportunity for bipartisanship, as when, in March, Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) jointly proposed a $90 million appropriation to study the effects of games and other media on children. Either no one on any of the senators' staffs could be bothered to point out that there already is a tranche of credible research on precisely that question (see above) or a group of presidential aspirants, who might otherwise be comparing one another to Nazis or Mad magazine caricatures, calculated that bashing game creators and merchants could be a cheap way for the Republicans to endear themselves to their socially conservative base or for the Democrats to pry away some of the family-values vote from the other side.

The scapegoating of video games is hardly the first instance of politicians attempting to bludgeon popular culture into submission, but what separates efforts to curb children's exposure to video games from older, parallel campaigns is how profoundly out of touch they are with the realities of the entertainment choices available to children.

Hillary Clinton, for example, fresh from her collaboration with Santorum and Brownback, and consistent with her advertised principle of "fighting the culture of sex and violence in the media," decided in mid-July to intervene in the controversy over the so-called "Hot Coffee" mod for the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. "Hot Coffee" is a hidden component of the game's coding that, if unlocked via a program that can be freely downloaded from the Internet, will treat a player to scenes of uncensored (but still polygonal) sex. Outraged, Senator Clinton wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission urging it to investigate whether Rockstar (the company that produces GTA) created the Hot Coffee content. She refrained, however, from commenting on one of the first lessons that a new web surfer learns, namely, that there is a universe of free Internet pornography that anyone looking online for explicit sex will access before ever bothering to import animated sex into video games.

The sheer scope of media choices available to both children and adults, exponentially vaster than it was even a few years ago, renders efforts to reign in content by means of regulatory mechanisms predictably futile. The occasional pixilated displays of violence and sex in some games that are sometimes sold to children (16 percent of games are "Mature"-rated, and 16 percent of game buyers are under 18, according to the Entertainment Software Association), comprise a tiny part of the total array of media content freely available to anyone. Nevertheless, legislators have begun drafting righteous bills that practically beg to be overturned in court. With any luck, that will keep the prohibitionists occupied until they discover the next dire threat to our children.