We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

Summary: A new poll says Americans want laws regulating violent video game sales, contradicting a recent Supreme Court ruling. We don't need more laws. We just need more common sense.

TOPICS: Mobility

It's plain to see that some parents - many, in fact - aren't doing their job when it comes to keeping violent video games away from their children. But is it time for laws to do it instead?

Last week, in a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said no. In a 7-2 ruling, the court overturned a 2005 California law that would have fined retailers convicted of selling violent video games to minors. In its ruling, the court said that violent video games are subject to the same First Amendment protections as other possibly violent art forms, like art, books or plays.

The law was sponsored by a San Francisco state senator named Leland Yee. Among his credentials is a PhD in child psychology, and Yee is convinced that violent video games can trigger violent activity in kids. Some of the testimony presented to the court underscored that belief, but it was largely discounted in the court's ruling; in writing their opinion, the prevailing justices felt that the science was far from conclusive.

The Supreme Court justices are right - for every study that tries to establish a link between playing violent video games and exhibiting violent behavior, there seems to be another study that contradicts it. We are far from understanding exactly how the mind works. It's easier to err on the side of caution, especially when we come to children, but it's much harder to enter that into evidence in a court of law as irrefutable fact.

Yee says that he'll continue the fight once he's had a chance to study the court's ruling, perhaps introducing a new law that will ultimately pass Constitutional muster. Yee's also in the midst of a mayoral run for San Francisco, so we'll see how soon that happens.

A new study from Rasmussen Reports shows that a solid majority of respondents think that it's okay for states to restrict violent video game sales to minors  - 67 percent. But an even larger majority feel that parents are more responsible than the government for limiting how violent images are shown to kids.

History is squarely not on the side of legislators when it come to regulating violent video game content to children. While the Supreme Court decision is the latest and highest-profile example of a video game law being overturned, it's not the first time states have tried to do so. Each and every time, the laws have been overturned by the time they get to the federal level. The federal judiciary takes a very strong view favoring the First Amendment in these cases.

That's obviously not going to stop well-meaning politicians from trying to pass laws, of course. "Think of the children" is easy. It makes for great headlines, and once a state legislature passes a bill and the governor signs it into law, they've done their job. If it dies in court, well, the politicians can wash their hands of it. Activist judges in the pocket of corporate America. Et cetera.

In fairness, I don't know anyone who advocates for little kids to play excessively violent video games. In the same way, I don't now anyone who advocates for little kids to watch torture movies like Saw or Hostel. That's grown-up entertainment. Or "entertainment," depending on your taste.

But it never fails to interest me that parents are often much more passive about letting their kids play violent video games than they are about watching violent movies or TV shows.

For a number of years, I've been invited to speak at the career day held at my kids' elementary school. I explain that I'm a writer, and that my job has to do with video games. That, predictably, gets their attention. And every year, I'm disappointed with the number of kids who raise their hands when I ask them if they're allowed to play violent video games. Little ones, in third or fourth grade, routinely regale me with intricate, graphic stories about things they've done in games that are rated M for Mature - that is, games that are explicitly labeled (and marketed) for adults.

The reasons for the kids' exposure to violent video games are varied, but they usually boil down to a few basic themes:

1) An older brother or sister plays the games, and the parents don't mind the younger ones doing it. After all, it keeps them busy.

2) The parents - often the dad - play those games and don't mind letting the kids play.

3) The parents have purchased the game specifically for the kid, and have no idea of what's really in it. Many times the kid has the game system in their own room or in a special kid's play room, so the parent doesn't supervise what they're playing.

Any way you slice it, there's a big double-standard when it comes to kids and violent content in video games.

But to turn full-circle to my original question - is it time to pass a law?

In short, no. Why?

Because you can't legislate common sense.

Laws aren't going to change human nature. Parents are going to continue to use video game systems as babysitters and entertainment devices for their kids, because they work. And violent video games are going to continue to be created because they sell.

The best I think we can hope for is to continue to educate parents about the rating systems used to label content in video games. Here in the US, that's the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) system, which works a bit like the one that motion pictures use. Europe uses the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system, which accomplishes the same thing.

And we can continue to patronize retailers who voluntarily check IDs for potentially under age buyers. (In my town, my local GameStop does a pretty good job of policing its customers to make sure they're of the appropriate age to buy the games they want. Your mileage may vary, of course.)

But leaving it up to the courts or to the politicians is a big mistake.

We don't need more laws. We just need more common sense.

Topic: Mobility

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  • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

    Great article so far (only read half of it at this point).

    But put yourself behind the counter of your local Gamestop. You see a boy no more then 10 years old come to the counter asking to buy, oh let's say the newest "God of War" game, only because I know there is harsh language, lots of gore, and nudity. You don't see his parents anywhere. Are you really going to sell him that game?
    • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

      @Bates_ No, because Gamestop already requires age identification to sell M rated games...ya know, like the movie theaters. Not to mention, if a 10 year old is at gamestop, SOMEBODY brought him there. And gave him money.
      • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

        @Aerowind Not all Gamestops check ID, there is a local one by me who doesn't, and just because someone brought him there and gave him money (it could be his own money), doesn't mean that someone is with him in the store.
    • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

      @Bates_ Gamestop won't sell an "M" rated product to minors. Plain and simple.
      • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense


        Right, just like nobody will sell alcohol, or cigarettes to people who are underage. Oh, I am sorry, they do, just recently a local convenience store lost their alcohol license after getting caught selling alcohol to a minor.

        When you pay minimum wage, and have hundreds or thousands of locations it is very easy to believe that there is some stores out there with employees that are lazy, or just don't care enough to follow the policies.
  • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

    While I sort of agree with you, I sort of don't. If a retailer sells a product intended for an adult to a child, is that right? Is it irresponsible? Perhaps even criminally?

    Consider the following items that are intended for adults, and if you should indeed allow a child to buy them from you:

    1) Medication
    2) A firearm
    3) A Film intended for a mature audience
    4) Alcoholic Beverages

    Do you think a retailer should be held responsible for selling such items to someone clearly too young?

    Now is it really unreasonable to add video games to the list?

    Now I know, children will still get access to video games not intended for them - for all the reasons you state. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't TRY and stop them.

    I fear that if we don't stop children having access to these titles then the next move will to stop them being made. I for one don't want that. I enjoy them and, sadly, I won't see 21 again.
    • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense


      3 out of the for listed aren't similar to a game . . . As has been stated, we are infants in our understanding of the universe let alone the most complex thing known to man. Honestly, kids will see more violence from news media than any other form of "entertainment".
      • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

        OK, when exactly has any news program shown a women (very graphically) being torn in half?
        Hemlock Stones
      • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

        @Hemlock Stones

        Violence is violence, It really doesn't matter how it is portrayed. Difference is one is real.
      • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

        @Hemlock Stones The only time i'm aware of it happening was on the Daily Show, when Jon Stewart was editorializing about the Supreme Court ruling.

        But to the point at hand, that is from a game that's clearly labeled M for Mature and rated for its content. It's not *meant* for kids, it's not *marketed* to kids.

        You can argue - and I would, in point of fact, agree - that people who let their kids play such games are being neglectful, but that's a very different argument from saying that the sale of such games should be regulated by the government.

        - Peter
      • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

        You're ignoring the fact the freedom of speech has been challenged and shot down when it comes to protecting minors. You are seriously 'infant' in your understanding of what is what where graphic violence is concerned and what should be considered 'suitable'. Courts have long considered what a prudent man would do as a guide where none existed and there is no way you can convince me that a prudent man would allow this to be handed over to a minor.
        As far as all the 'my local Gamestop' arguments go, breaking the law is breaking the law. Just because your local clerk would sell cigarettes and beer to a kid doesn't make it right.
      • How far we have fallen

        @mgaul & all my fellow zdnet Geeks:

        Think about this for a second - I mean, I'm not *that* old, but still - but 30 years ago, it wouldn't have been an argument to hold a retailer's feet to the fire because a kids parents let them drink, let them watch dirty movies, and let them shoot guns in the backyard!!! Fast forward to now, and here we are -- I can get "medicinal" weed to help my whooping cough but I can't buy lawndarts 'cause someone's kids didn't know not to run under the darn things when someone's tossing them around....!?

        We're too quick to judge the retailers and blame them every time someone else failed to make a "common sense" decision, as if somehow a couple of dollar bills being exchanged are going to make a transaction into some kind of exercise in business ethics and societal morals. And all of this cascades and cascades and keeps on cascading every day. Here in NY, for example, bars can't serve drunks anymore. Can you tell me anyone that isn't drunk after drinking? Heck, they're probably working on banning serving fat people food in restaurants in the city as we speak. This all evolves (nay, *devolves*) into our everyday sense of entitlement. We are all *entitled* to be dumb and stupid, most of all. Everything else is just fluff.
      • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

        @rock06r You're damn right.
      • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

        @flargh - "It's not *meant* for kids, it's not *marketed* to kids". I'd have to disagree to both points. I feel that, even with the rating, and to some extent because of it, M rated games are intended and marketed towards kids, if you count people under 18 as kids.
      • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

        @mgaul What you need are sensible and responsible parents and I guess the politicians and courts defer to these responsible parents. What is wrong with that premise is that the numbers of responsible parents has declined to a point where the politicians and courts must pick up those responsibilities. Smarten up or stand down.
    • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

      @jeremychappell "A film intended for a mature audience" is where your argument breaks down. The MPAA rating system is a purely voluntary industry system - even at retail stores. There are no laws saying that kids can't walk into a theater or even buy an R-rated movie; the system which is supposed to prevent kids from doing that is industry-run.

      One of the findings of the federal appeals court judge who ruled against this California law was that if there is an effective voluntary system already in place, it must be used. And indeed it is, in this case, it's the ESRB ratings system.

      The bottom line is that legally, we differentiate pornography from violence. Pornography *is* regulated to the point where its sale to children is illegal. Violence is a much stickier wicket. As Justice Scalia pointed out in his ruling, where do you draw the line? By some measure, Grimm's Fairy Tales are violent, but that's definitely kid lit, right?

      There aren't any pat, easy answers on the litigation front, which is another reason I'm firmly against legislation being the answer here.

      - Peter
      • RE: We don't need more video game laws, we just need common sense

        Have to agree.
        By definition "Harry Potter" is in the PG13 to R range.
  • We just need more common sense!

    Anyone who thinks that just because a law says something, that thing will be obeyed, is being naive.
    How many of us bought beer or cigarettes before they were old enough to do so? I'm not saying it is right, only that it has, does, and will happen.

    What we need is more common sense IN ALL AREAS OF LIFE. Compensation culture and idiotic cases brought to court are crippling the western world, and we've no-one to blame but ourselves.
    • Absolutely!

      The more laws you have, the more lawbreakers you have. That is why the western world is crippled with litigation: the western world has turned its back on freedom and has given government the go-ahead to make rules for every aspect of personal life.

      Every time a legislator says that voting against or for a proposal would "send the wrong message," I want to tell him that no one really gives a da*n about his message. If people want to do something badly enough, they usually do it, whether a legislator has "blessed" it or not.

      Common sense and parental responsibility: what great concepts!
      sissy sue
  • The thinking brain's off-switch, DIFTC

    Unfortunately, "Do it for the children" normally causes people to stop thinking and just go with whatever has been proposed, right or wrong. The particular phrase should instead put everyone on alert that there's a man behind the curtain, he's not a nice person, and he's about to pull a con job on you.