With the legal momentum against violent and sexually explicit video games picking up steam across the nation last week, some gamers may be wondering why so many politicians are picking on them these days.
Even in a year that has already featured a games-rating sex scandal (see " 'Grand Sex Auto'? Sex Scenes Possibly Hidden In Game Have Critics In A Lather") and criticism of video games from a host of politicians, including Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), last week was a big one for critics of violent and sexually explicit games.
Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm made her state the second in the union this year, after Illinois, to outlaw the sale of such games to minors, under penalty of fines ranging from $5,000 to $40,000 or up to 93 days in jail. In California, state lawmakers sent a bill that would levy fines of up to $1,000 against those who sell minors intensely violent games to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in the hopes he will sign it into law. Late in the week, Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), New York senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (D) each urged Governor Schwarzenegger (R) to take action.
The Entertainment Software Association, which represents the video game industry, objected, condemning the California bill and announcing that it will sue to block the Michigan law, as it has the one in Illinois.
Gamers following these developments might wonder why so many politicians seem to have it in for their favorite pastime.
"This is not about censorship," said Assemblyman Leland Yee (D), the main backer of the California bill. "I would rather not do this. But enough is enough. Each year some of the stuff gets more and more outrageous."
Yee says the issue came to his attention when a staffer discovered that her young kids had access to violent games. "As you can imagine," he said, "she was rather horrified.
"Unfortunately, a lot of parents don't have the kind of computer gaming sophistication that many children have," Yee added. "Parents don't really know what's inside these games."
If signed into law, Yee's bill will prohibit the sale of the most violent games. "We're not talking about violent video games," he said. "We're talking about ultra-violent video games." The bill offers several definitions for such games, including those whose violence causes them to "lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors" and those whose violence "is especially heinous, cruel or depraved in that it involves torture or serious physical abuse to the victim." Yee says he does not think his bill would cover the "Terminator" games Governor Schwarzenegger has digitally starred in.
Politicians at the forefront of the gaming violence debate have not discussed their own gaming habits very much. Yee is not a gamer and says he has not tried playing the explicit games his bill would cover. Instead he watched recordings his staff made of violent scenes from games such as "Grand Theft Auto."
In Michigan, State Senator Alan Cropsey (R), who sponsored the two main bills signed into law by Governor Granholm, admitted to being hooked by the strategy game "Civilization" a few years ago, though he also hasn't tried the violent games his bills cover.
Nevertheless, the consensus among those working on such laws is that games have a profound effect on those who play them and deserve special constraints.
The gaming industry disagrees, of course. In a statement criticizing the California bill, the ESA said that games were suffering from a double standard: "There is no question that some games have content that is offensive to some audiences. The same can be said of TV, films, music and books. But government does not regulate their sales, nor should government regulate the sale of video games."
Yee, a child psychologist, says he has long followed the debate about the effects of violent entertainment on minors and has come to the conclusion that games are different. "Some violence I think we should tolerate because of the First Amendment," he said. He sees video game violence as an exception because "what you do controls what happens to the victim."
Yee and Cropsey both support their cases with anecdotal evidence. Yee cited the Columbine school shootings of 1999. Cropsey recounted a story told by a Michigan sheriff, who said two kids had tried to emulate a scene from a game they had played by taking a car for a reckless joy ride, running into another car and killing that car's driver and his son in the process.
They also point out that police officers and the military use video-game-like systems for training purposes, suggesting that if games can sharpen the skills of the authorities, they can probably instill behaviors in other players for less noble deeds as well.
The idea of cause-and-effect is crucial to arguments about violent video games. A law banning the sale of violent games to minors was struck down in St. Louis in 2003, in part because the courts were unimpressed with the available research about the ability of games to incite violence.
Yee and Cropsey say they believe new scientific research will support their legislation, a sentiment echoed by the Michigan governor's office. "We're confident that the new laws we've established can withstand legal challenge," said Heidi Hansen, a spokesperson for Governor Granholm.
For his part, Yee hopes the focus will stay on science. "I'm from San Francisco," he said. "I'm not interested in getting into a morality issue and so on. I know the effect of violence on kids."
And he says he expects that the national movement in support of bills like his will only increase. "This is just going to continue to snowball," he said.