Let’s Consider the Facts Before We Call In Government to Regulate Video Games

by on April 5, 2006 · 6 comments

Rebecca Hagelin of the Heritage Foundation recently posted a column about video games on TownHall.com that I think deserves a response. Ms. Hagelin is concerned about video games being “murder simulators” and recounts the story of one youth who killed several people last year and who also happened to play a lot of “Grand Theft Auto”

No doubt, the Devin Moore story that Ms. Hagelin uses to make her case against video games is quite sad and troubling. Before blaming video games for his behavior, however, a serious social analyst needs to weed out a host of other social / environment factors. For example, it was revealed at last week’s hearing on video game regulation that this young man was the product of a broken home and was apparently subjected to severe child abuse. Apparently his father beat both him and his brother several times a week and also forced them to work long shifts (over 16 hours at a time) at his janitorial business. Such factors need to be taken into account when evaluating what made this boy commit such heinous crimes. Yet, Ms. Hagelin ignores these facts in her essay.

But there are other facts ignored here too. I recently penned a study on the many myths and misperceptions driving the push for video game regulation in America today, including Sen. Hillary Clinton’s bill (“The Family Entertainment Protection Act”). The 30-page analysis (“Fact and Fiction in the Debate over Video Game Regulation”) can be found at the Progress & Freedom Foundation website at: http://www.pff.org/issues-pubs/pops/pop13.7videogames.pdf

The general conclusions of my research are as follows:

(1) The industry’s voluntary ratings system (the ESRB) is the most sophisticated, descriptive, and effective ratings system ever devised by any major media sector in America. No other ratings or labeling system offers parents as much information to make judgments about the content of the media in question. But critics never give the industry any credit for this achievement.

(2) Contrary to what critics argue, the vast majority of video games sold each year DO NOT contain intense violence or sexual themes. Of all the games that ESRB reviewed in 2005, less than 13 percent were rated “Mature” (M) or “Adults Only” (AO), the categories that contain the sort of violence critics are concerned about. In fact, less than 1 percent were rated Adults Only. Thus, around 86 percent of all games sold in 2004 were rated either “Early Childhood” (EC), “Everyone” (E), “Everyone 10 and older” (E10+), or “Teen” (T). Moreover, I compiled the ratings for all of the top-20 video and computer games between 2001-2005 and found that over 80 percent of the most popular games were rated either “E” or “T.” If one removes from the count the various “Grand Theft Auto” and “Halo” titles (there have been multiple best-selling versions of each game), the percentage of “M” rated games drops even further.

(3) Just as every state law attempting to regulate video games so far has been struck down as unconstitutional, it is likely that Sen. Clinton’s “Family Entertainment Protection Act” will also be struck down. Every court that has analyzed this issue agrees that video games are protected speech under the First Amendment, just like movies and music. Critics, however, continue to act as if video game expression does not represent constitutionally-protected speech.

(4) If it somehow withstood legal scrutiny, Sen. Clinton’s “Family Entertainment Protection Act” could derail the industry’s voluntary ratings system and necessitate the adoption of a federally mandated regulatory regime / ratings system. If that occurs, someone in the federal government would be forced to make decisions regarding what constitutes “acceptable levels” of violence in video games. This might also have ramifications for regulation of film. (Is the “The Passion of the Christ” too violent? We’ll have to wait and see what the bureaucrats say). Regardless, critics need to ask themselves whether the industry’s voluntary ratings system is better than no ratings system at all.

(5) No correlation between video games and aggressive behavior has been proven. Moreover, almost every social / cultural indicator of importance has been improving in recent years and decades even as media exposure and video game use among youth has increased. Juvenile murder, rape, robbery, and assault are all down significantly over the past decade. Aggregate violent crime by juveniles fell 43 percent between 1995 and 2004. Meanwhile, fewer kids today are carrying weapons to school or are victims of violence in schools than in the past. Alcohol and drug abuse, teen birth rates, high-school dropout rates, and teenage suicide rates have all dropped dramatically as well. (All these facts are meticulously documented in my paper and based on government data.) These results do not conclusively rule out a link between exposure to games and violent acts or promiscuous sexual behavior, but they should at least call into question the “world-is-going-to-hell” sort of generalizations made by proponents of increased video game regulation. In particular, referring to video games as “murder simulators” seems wildly off the mark. And common sense should tell us it really can’t be true. After all, millions of kids play video games every day of the week but don’t rush out and hurt people afterward.

(6) Finally, video games might have some beneficial effects – – especially of a cathartic nature – – that critics often overlook. A growing body of academic research supports this common sense notion. And, contrary to what some critics claim, violent themes and images have been part of literature and media for centuries.

I encourage you to read my entire study for more details. Again, it can be found online here.

And I welcome any response from Ms. Hagelin regarding these facts. As someone who spent 9 very happy years at the Heritage Foundation as a senior fellow in the 1990s, I understand the differences among some conservatives regarding content regulation issues. But I believe that (a) this debate such be grounded in the facts, not rhetoric; and (b) personal responsibility should continue to trump national nanny-ism whenever possible. I do not believe that conservatives can make a principled case for personal and parental responsibility in other instances if they call upon Uncle Sam to play the role of surrogate parent in cases like these.

(And I’ll avoid taking any cheap shots about Heritage aligning itself with Hillary Clinton on an issue!)

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