Video Games, Free Speech & the Lunacy of “Ecogenerism”

by on October 25, 2009 · 3 comments

I’ve been meaning to say something about this new paper by Renee Newman Knake of Michigan State University College of Law, which calls for a new paradigm to analyze, and then likely regulate, video game content. Knake’s paper is entitled, “From Research Conclusions to Real Change: Understanding the First Amendment’s (Non)Response to Negative Effects of Mass Media on Children by Looking to the Example of Violent Video Game Regulations.” In it, she proposes to extend an emerging legal philosophy known as “ecogenerism” to the field of video games and the First Amendment treatment thereof. “Ecogenerism” is largely the creation of Barbara Bennett Woodhouse and the theory argues that we should apply lessons or legal frameworks from the field of environmental law to the area of media and children. “Under an ecogenerist model,” states Knake, “media harm decisions should prioritize concern about the level of ‘toxic’ media which children are exposed over free speech interests.”  Simply stated, we should treat “toxic media” like toxic chemicals.

There have been other efforts to get courts to relax the legal scrutiny applied to video game content from “strict” to something more relaxed or intermediate in character. For example, there is the “violence as obscenity” approach proposed by Kevin Saunders, who, like Knake, is also with the Michigan State University College of Law. But whereas Saunders has proposed applying an adjacent legal theory or framework (obscenity law) to legal analysis of the constitutionality of regulation of video game content, Woodhouse and now Knake propose a much broader, and more radical, reformulation of First Amendment law along the lines of entirely different body of jurisprudence — again, environment law and regulation.

Of course, this is nuts. The notion that words or images are as “toxic” as chemicals is preposterous, and yet that is exactly what Knake and Woodhouse want us to accept. We can determine with a great deal of certainly the physiological impact of too much mercury or lead on the development of the human brain or body. Generally speaking, we know what dose would kill or deform. The same cannot possibly be said of media, and the very allusion to toxic materials or chemicals is ludicrous to begin with since words and images have never directly killed anyone. EVER!

Another problem with the analogy: Video game content, like many other forms of content, can also have profound societal value even when it is of a sexual or violent nature.  Even heavy “doses” of such media can be entirely acceptable (even beneficial) for some even if they are not for others. The same would not be said of toxic chemicals. Too much of a dose would be lethal to all.  In his latest “Law of the Game on Joystiq” column, Mark Methenitis does a nice job picking apart this paper in more detail and he really nails what’s wrong with this analogy between games and harmful chemicals, dangerous diseases, or potential deadly weapons:

A video game is not meningitis or AIDS, where occasional, isolated, or incidental exposure can lead to serious injury or death. Nor is a video game anything like a handgun, where exposure can lead to someone being seriously wounded, maimed or killed. Spending an hour with Halo or Borderlands at a friend’s house isn’t even in the same galaxy of potential harm as a kid having a gun or a serious illness at school.

Indeed, he rightly points out that many of the video games most likely to be regulated under an ecogenerist approach, like “Grand Theft Auto” or “Metal Gear Solid 4,”  have “a significant storyline with the same kind of political statement as the average Scorsese film.” Thus, he notes, “these [ecogenerist] restrictions would be impacting political speech, which is the most sacred and the most protected form of speech under the First Amendment.”  He also takes the authors of these theories to task for failing to seriously investigate the content they seek to censor.  “It is this lack of a true knowledge of the content that continually appears in so many arguments for video game regulation,” he notes.  Quite right.

Finally, we have better ways of dealing with objectionable media content, including video games, than to ban them outright or have regulators curtail content they don’t like. There is a rich mosaic of parental control tools and methods available to parents and guardians to deal with content they find unacceptable, and video game ratings and parental control tools are among the very best of any of those tools and rating systems.  As I have pointed out here far too many times to mention, we are at the stage now where our traditional reliance upon “community standards” regulation can give way to a “household standard” approach when it comes to “regulating” content.  Here’s how I put it in a recent paper I presented at Oxford University:

If it is the case that families now have the ability to effectively tailor media consumption and communications choices to their own preferences—that is, to craft their own “household standard”—then the regulatory equation can and should change.  Regulation can no longer be premised on the supposed helplessness of households to deal with content flows if families have been empowered and educated to make content determinations for themselves.  Luckily, that is the world we increasingly live in today. Parents have more tools and methods at their disposal to help them decide what constitutes acceptable media content in their homes and in the lives of their children.

Going forward, our goal should be to ensure that parents or guardians have (1) the information necessary to make informed decisions and (2) the tools and methods necessary to act upon that information.  Optimally, those tools and methods would give them the ability to not only block objectionable materials, but also to more easily find content they feel is appropriate for their families.

And, luckily, that’s the direction most free speech jurisprudence has been turning in the U.S. in recent years. It’s the right approach for a nation that values freedom of speech and expression.  The ecogenerist approach, by contrast, would open the floodgates to unprecedented censorship of speech in this country.  It would leave lawmakers and regulators free to play the role of national nanny and censor any sort of content they found personally objectionable by equating it with toxic chemicals or dangerous weapons.  That’s lunacy and it must be rejected as antithetical to our nation’s rich First Amendment history.

[Below is an old slide show presentation I did at Penn State University about "Video Games & Public Policy." Thought it made sense to repost it here.]

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