I’m not sure how I missed this, but someone just pointed out to me that in late July, the city of Amherst, NY, “failed to approve a game license for [Chuck E. Cheese’s] the kids-themed food and entertainment venue… citing concerns about violent video games and bad behavior by patrons that require police intervention.” That is according to this article by Sandra Tan in The Buffalo News. Tan reports that the Amherst Town Board deadlocked 3-3 when considering the license for Chuck E. Cheese’s, apparently meaning that the pizza and arcade hot spot for kids will no longer be able to offer games at their Amherst venue. According to her article, game content considerations drove the move:
Council Member Shelly Schratz said she was disturbed by several “action-packed shoot-and-kill games” that were accessible to children as young as 4. “When I see 6-year-olds, 8-year-olds playing those games, when all the time we’re opening the paper and seeing those stories on youth violence, do we need those games to make money?” she said. Schratz was one of three board members who voted against renewing the establishment’s game room license, which is necessary for the business to legally run its arcade games, a major draw for families that patronize the chain’s 500-plus locations from coast to coast.
I find the actions of Amherst in this case to be quite troubling. Here are a few quick thoughts about this incident:
(1) What in the world are local city councils doing licensing video arcades? It’s not like we are talking about riverboat gambling enterprises here (although I personally don’t think they need to be licensed either). Of course, there’s a tax angle in it for the local towns. Tan notes that “Licensing brings in revenue for the town, including a $100 application fee, an additional annual license fee of $200 for up to five games, and $40 more for each additional game, according to the town code.” Essentially, towns like Amherst are taxing young kids’ quarters to fill city coffers! But that doesn’t necessarily make it right, especially in light of #2…
(2) When lawmakers use an occupational licenses as a tool of content regulation it raises profound First Amendment issues. Unfortunately, as the comments cited above suggest, that seems to be what is going on in the Amherst case. If occupational licensure can be used as a tool of censorship in cases like this, where else might public officials seek to use it? Can licensed doctors or lawyers be told what they can say or print?
(3) I have to wonder if the proponents of such a video arcade ban ever visited a Chuck E. Cheese’s and really spent time examining the games. You won’t find many slasher games there. In fact, you’ll mostly find the games from the exact opposite end of the video game spectrum: many of the same mindless games we grew up with a generation ago, some of which aren’t even video games (like skee ball and mini-basketball). Most of the actual video games found there are quite mild in nature. [Incidentally, I know this for a fact because I visit Chuck E. Cheese outlets with my kids far more than I care to admit!]
(4) At some point parental responsibility has to enter the picture. Where are the parents or guardians? Are they just dropping young kids off and hoping the Chucky the mouse will be their babysitter? If so, those are some bad parents. But that doesn’t mean that the city council should be playing nanny and taking over those responsibilities for parents by shutting down arcades that the vast majority of kids frequent without incident.
(5) Finally, speaking of parental responsibility and less-restrictive approaches to the issue, did you know there is an arcade rating system for games? The “Coin-Operated Video Game Parental Advisory System” is administered by the American Amusement Machine Association (AAMA), the Amusement and Music Operators Association (AMOA), and the International Association for the Leisure & Entertainment Industry (IALEI). It uses a color-coded, “traffic light” approach so that parents can review the green, yellow, or red sticker labels on arcade games and decide whether to let their children play. I’ve embedded that rating system and its various designations below. [I wrote about this more in my big "Parental Controls & Online Child Protection" book.]
In light of these concerns, I fail to see why Amherst or any other city should be in the business of licensing video arcades. And even if they are doing so for tax purposes, they shouldn’t be using that power to censor arcade games or shutting down businesses that offer such games.