Stephen King has the right idea

by Paul William Tenny

stephen-king.jpgStephen King has shared some insightful thoughts in Entertainment Weekly about pending video game legislation in Massachusetts. Like in virtually ever other instance, this well intentioned yet ill-conceived law will almost certainly be struck down in district court as an unconstitutional restraint on free speech.

The last state that tried this, I remember reading, ended up having to raid local health care funding in order to pay the opposing lawyers fees after it lost the fight that its own legal counsel had said it would lose.

Reasonably speaking, legislation such as this is misguided right from the start because there is little to no scientific evidence that these games are harmful to kids or young adults.
Should a consensus arise on this, I'm certain most people would support legislation that addresses the problem without unduly restricting the speech of the game developers, or the freedom to access these games by people can deal with them.

Things are even more stark and simple than that though, if you compare video games to the violence, sex, and other adult vices we can get in utter abundance via other means in our culture.

HB 1423 would restrict or outright ban the sale of violent videogames to anyone under the age of 18. Which means, by the way, that a 17-year-old who can get in to see Hostel: Part II would be forbidden by law from buying (or renting, one supposes) the violent but less graphic Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

If you follow this to its natural conclusion, you end up with all sorts of common sense arguments against any number of activities that are restricted by age for no other reason than someone's arbitrary ideas of appropriateness. As an example, you have to be 21 years in most states to buy and drink alcohol, presumably because at that age a person is presumed to be mature enough to do so responsibly. This ignores about a thousand years of evidence that age is for the most part unrelated to a persons maturity. Yet in the face of this logic, a person can join the military where they can handle firearms, explosives, and be taught how to kill other human beings efficiently and without emotion.

A link has the hypocrisy of arguing that video games train kids to kill without emotion, while that is precisely what the military does and yet not only is it not looked upon as morally reprehensible, it's actually celebrated. As King noted, video games are anything but the only source for violence we have in this country. Banning access to it might even have some legs if the principles behind it were applied evenly, regardless of entertainment medium. The MPAA has been censoring films for violence and sexual content since the Cold War and by most measures has only become more strict as the years have passed in what adults are deemed mature enough to see and hear, much less teenagers and kids.

Without going into that, the film and TV rating systems were put in place so that the producers of this content could police themselves, acting responsibly within the community to stave off the heavy hand of government censorship. Those systems even with their many flaws are still inarguably effective. Every television manufactured in the past eight-to-ten years has a special chip in it (mandated by Congress) that forced the television to block content above a certain rating threshold set by a parent. Evidence suggests that while many people complain about violent and sexual content on television, hardly any of them use the tools already available to them.

Games have a similar rating system that has shown flaws of its own with games sneaking inappropriate content games rated for teens, but overall it's still the same system. Games rated for adults are not meant to be sold to minors and there is no evidence unearthed by the states trying to censor them that there is an epidemic of clerks selling war games to kids.

The most effective bar against what was called ''the seduction of the innocent'' when this hot-button issue centered on violent comic books 60 years ago is still parents who know and care not just about what their kids are watching and reading, but what they're doing and who they're hanging with. Parents need to have the guts to forbid material they find objectionable...and then explain why it's being forbidden. They also need to monitor their children's lives in the pop culture -- which means a lot more than seeing what games they're renting down the street.

This boils down the program to its core. Parents would argue that they don't have the time to watch their kinds closely enough to make sure every minute of their life is clean and moral, while others would argue that those same parents are simply making excuses for not being good parents. I would also add that the threats kids and young adults face in the home are a fraction of what they face when they're out in the world where anything can and does happen. The risks of unprotected sex and drug abuse have consequences that well documented and understood in ways that game violence are not.

What really makes me insane is how eager politicians are to use the pop culture -- not just videogames but TV, movies, even Harry Potter -- as a whipping boy. It's easy for them, even sort of fun, because the pop-cult always hollers nice and loud. Also, it allows legislators to ignore the elephants in the living room.

I tend to take a more partisan and pessimistic attitude toward the dishonest intentions behind these bills. What King says is almost certainly true, but it's not the only reason. Conservatives tend to support this type of control in far greater numbers with more enthusiasm -- although they don't have a monopoly on the issue -- and to them that's what this is really all about. They don't like it, but won't settle for simply not buying it themselves. They have to control everyone's lives and this is just another step in that direction.

I've played and I still enjoy a lot of very violent video games, but I don't own any guns and don't have any urges to kill people. Likewise, as King noted in his essay, the Virginia Tech shooter didn't do what he did because of violent video games.

He did it because he was insane.

End of story.
in Games


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