Civil Liberties

Latest Video Game Violence Overreach: Rules that Have Already Been Struck Down

Congressman wants to regulate video games like porn with about as much likelihood of success


Don't tell Congress that kids can now make their own version of this game at home

By a 7-2 margin, the Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that video games are protected by the First Amendment and struck down a California law banning the sale or rental of violent video games to children. It would be pretty stupid for any legislator to put forward a bill that attempts the exact same thing. Nevertheless, Rep. Jim Matheson (RD-Utah) has done exactly that. On Tuesday, he submitted H.R. 287, which would attempt to reinstate the ban nationally and also mandates content ratings labels on all video games.

The bill is a slightly amusing read (pdf) in the sense of how tone-deaf it is regarding innovations in game distribution. It requires content labeling on a conspicuous location on all outside packaging. I think it's been maybe two years since I bought a video game that even came in a package, preferring digital distribution instead. (My console gaming has kind of fallen by the wayside, but even they are shifting more toward digital distribution models.) It's the equivalent of passing a modern bill requiring warning labels on the physical packaging of porn.

In any event, much like the movie industry, the video game industry has a voluntary ratings program in place, developed in part to respond to complaints about violence. Though it's voluntary, pretty much every major game is rated. Much like movie theaters refusing to carry unrated films, most stores will decline to sell unrated games, so there's plenty of market pressure to provide information and get rated. I am going to bet that any game found in Adam Lanza's room had a ratings label on it.

But he might have had violent, gory indie games on his PC that might not have had such labeling (we don't know because he apparently destroyed his hard drive pre-rampage). That he may have had unrated games is not the "Ah, ha!" moment Nanny Staters might think it is. The video games market has blown wide in a remarkably uncontrollable fashion that would have been unfathomable even a decade ago. Nearly anybody who has the time and focus can create a video game now. It's as accessible as making your own movies or music. Gaming platforms have had to develop special mechanisms and marketplaces for indie game content just to help consumers navigate the massive supply.

A couple of years ago I discovered that somebody had made a neat little tool that allows anybody to make text adventures reminiscent of the heydays of Infocom, back in the early 1980s. I fiddled around with it for a week and made my own game and distributed it to some friends. I could have possibly sold it to folks online, asking them to send me money through PayPal in exchange for e-mailing them the game.

The federal government absolutely cannot stop this. They will not be able to restrict the distribution of games through digital means no matter how horrifying the content. As it is, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (the group that evaluates and rates the content of video games) has had to streamline its process for mobile games who want to get ratings and have dropped the price of review considerably for smaller, cheaper games.

Our gun-focused bloggers have repeatedly noted that the advances in 3-d printing technology will make a mockery out of any potential gun control regulations. The government will not be able to enforce a limit in magazine capacity and it is simply willful ignorance of them to think that they can.

Attempting to somehow restrict or regulate the market for video games is even more ridiculous. Video games hardly even exist in a physical format any longer. It wouldn't surprise me if video games as a packaged product disappear entirely off store shelves by the end of this decade. And because game purchases and rentals will take place in digital space not physical space (there is already a Netflix for video game rentals called GameFly), age monitoring is also utterly impossible.