Senators, lawyers, researchers and gaming-industry professionals gathered Wednesday to find out why courts across the country have been turning down state attempts to ban the sale of violent video games to minors — and discuss what should be done about it.
Politicians have held hearings about violent video games since at least the early '90s, when "Mortal Kombat" was all the rage. Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee was titled "What's in a Game? State Regulation of Violent Video Games and the First Amendment" and focused primarily on concerns stemming from games such as "25 to Life" and "Grand Theft Auto," which allow players to kill cops.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Sam Brownback (R-KS) made clear from the start that he was disturbed by the violence in many top video games. "Thanks to new technology the violence in today's video games is becoming more graphic, realistic and barbaric," he said, adding later that, "I long for the time in 1997 when I started these hearings."
In the past year governors in California, Illinois and Michigan have signed laws banning the sale of ultra-violent games to minors (see "Political Battles Against Video Games Heating Up Across The Nation"). In each case federal courts have kept the laws from taking effect, citing concerns about free speech and a lack of conclusive evidence that violent games are harmful to minors. In December Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) proposed a nationwide version of those laws (see "Senators Propose A Federal Ban On Explicit Video Games").
"It would be an enormous waste of time and resources to pass a clearly unconstitutional law," Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) said at the hearing. "Nevertheless I am very interested in learning about this problem."
Some testimony did explore the obstacles to laws against violent games. Video game industry lawyer Paul Smith said freedom of speech would make it tough for lawmakers to get laws to stick. "As a matter of law, any attempt to justify content-based suppression of speech based on the theory that particular content carries too much risk of causing listeners to engage in bad behavior is categorically ruled out under the First Amendment," he said. The only exception, he said, is speech that incites immediate unlawful action — something that, per the First Amendment, games, movies and books generally cannot do.
Others called to testify, including researchers clearly alarmed by the violence in games, acknowledged the research wasn't there yet to prove games have lasting damage on kids who play them. (The American Psychological Association said the opposite in a study released last summer; see "Violent Video Games Lead To Aggressive Behavior, APA Says.") "In rare situations violence from media is directly imitated," conceded Dr. David Bickham, a researcher on media and child health at Harvard Medical School. He said the more pervasive effects were video games' expression that violence is an acceptable and frequently rewarded way to solve problems.
Researcher Dmitri Williams, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told senators that most research purporting a link between games and real-world violence — research that has failed to convince the courts — only checked gamers' reactions to games 10 to 30 minutes after playing the game. Most studies didn't do any follow-up hours, days or even years later to check long-term effects. "With a study that short you might be measuring excitement, not violence," he said. "You could effectively get the same effects by having them throw a Frisbee."
Democratic Maryland State Senator Richard Colburn asked Williams if he had received funding from the gaming industry. Williams said he had not.
While no breakthroughs were made on how violent-game laws would work, it was clear during the hearing that the attending politicians were eager to take some sort of action. "We ought to do whatever we can to limit the violent exposure of these games to children," Colburn said. "There may not be anything negative but there is certainly nothing positive about these games."
Critics of violent games frequently exhibit ignorance about the medium. Feingold was up front about it. "Contrary to popular rumor I'm not a big video game guy," he said. "Politicians don't usually admit they don't know things."
The hearing included several of the common inaccuracies that reflect many game critics' lack of familiarity with a PS2 Dual Shock. Comments were made about "GTA" 's supposed rewarding of points for players who shoot policemen and extra points for shooting them in the head.
But the politicians didn't prove to be entirely in the dark. Minnesota Republican State Representative Jeff Johnson delivered a largely accurate account of "Manhunt" — another game from the makers of "GTA" — which he said he discovered while looking for copies of "Madden" with his 7-year-old son. "You score points by killing people in creative and gruesome ways," he said. "For example you can use a piano wire to grab a man from behind and saw at his neck, pushing your foot against his back until his head falls off." Johnson is sponsoring a bill in Minnesota that would impose a $25 fine on the sale to a minor of any game rated M or AO by the industry standard Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
"What I'm hopeful for," Johnson said, "is that by passing the new law we may get the attention of at least a few of the painfully oblivious parents in our state who are really paying absolutely no attention to some of the garbage their little kids are playing on their video game machines."
The most stirring testimony of the day came from the Reverend Steve Strickland, whose policeman brother, Aaron, along with two other men, were shot to death in an Alabama police station in 2003 by teenager Devon Moore, an avid "GTA" player. "These games in the wrong hands played long enough are detrimental to our family, our friends and our entire society," he said. "This is the violent video game world, a world that, as far as I'm concerned, is straight from the pits of hell."
Just as the two-hour session got heated, it ended abruptly. After testimony from Pat Vance, president of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, about the nature of video game ratings, Senator Brownback made it clear he felt she was not telling the whole story. While Vance testified that the prevalence of M-rated games was exaggerated, noting that "last year not one M-rated game was on the top 10 sales list," Brownback accused her of being disingenuous. The two top-selling games for 2004, "GTA: San Andreas" and "Halo 2," were indeed M. "Congratulations for selling a lot of violent video games," he said.
"I didn't sell them, sir," Vance replied. "I just rated them."
A few minutes later, the hearing was adjourned.