[Article first published as Congressmen Propose Violence Warnings on Almost Every Game out There on Blogcritics.]
It’s always a good thing to see when Congress works hard to tackle the tough issues. You know, economic health, unemployment, foreign relations – important things. Then you see bills introduced that make you wonder why we pay them. Rep. Joe Baca (D – CA) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R – VA) have just recently sponsored H.R. 4204, “The Video Game Health Labeling Act of 2012,” which is akin to its past iteration in 2009. The passing of the bill would mean that all games rated E and above (that’s right, “E” for “Everyone”) by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board would have to carry with it a warning on the label, regardless of content. The warning would read “WARNING: Exposure to violent video games has been linked to aggressive behavior” according to the language (see the bill here).
For those unfamiliar with the current Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating system, allow me to give you a primer – games are classified into ratings by the intended audience, much how the MPAA uses their (broken) system of G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. ESRB’s ratings are eC (early childhood), E (everyone), E10 (everyone 10+), T (teen), M (mature 17+) and AO (adults only 18+). So they’ve actually broken games down into much narrower bands than the MPAA has with movies. And of course, these ratings are accompanied with reasoning (you can look games up on esrb.org for ratings and rationale). In my opinion, the classifications are, for the most part, dead on accurate.
So now that you’ve had your ESRB primer, let’s take a look at what this bill passing would mean. Let’s take a nice, fun, family friendly all-ages game like Brain Age for the Nintendo DS. If you’re unfamiliar with this game, it’s a series of puzzles based on numbers, like Sudoku, and math problems to find and enhance your “brain age,” the primary goal being to exercise your brain. Passing the described bill above would mean that Brain Age, with its “E” rating, would carry the aforementioned warning on its labeling.
Because we all know mathematics is all about CRAZY levels of violence. I’m surprised calculus students aren’t at each other’s throats as we speak, trying to bend each other into shapes defined by 3D integrals in cylindrical space.
Now that’s an extreme example, but Reps. Baca and Wolf are really just offering a SOPA-style solution to lump every game together into one large child corrupting cesspool, assuming that if one’s bad, all must be. This kind of thinking would put the same warning on snowboarding series SSX, Family Game Night by Hasbro, and music games like Rock Band. And none of these games hold a candle in terms of violent and adult themes that M and AO games carry. How do I know this? Because of their ratings.
Let’s make one thing clear – I am fully in favor of the ESRB rating system. It provides a clear and concise way of warning parents or others purchasing games for young people what kind of content will come up when they start playing. It’s how you should know not to buy your six-year-old the rated “M” God of War, and on the flipside how you know your 17 year old son may not enjoy “eC” rated Franklin the Turtle as much as you think. Yes, admittedly many M and AO rated games do feature violence and adult themes, but that’s why they’re rated M and AO. The rating itself serves as an efficient warning label, as a study conducted by the FTC shows. The system works, and it’s not so easy for kids to get their hands on M rated games. Hell, even at 30, in a shirt and tie coming from the office, I still occasionally get carded for an M rated game.
What I am not for is a system that labels every game with a warning that it will turn your child into a deviant. In my personal experience, while I’m game shopping there’s a 50/50 chance that a total stranger will ask me whether or not a particular game would be good for a child of a certain age, at which point I explain the ESRB system and they go off on their merry, as well as educated, way. As I find in most things, all it takes is a little digital education and problems, as well as the accompanying confusion, seem to disappear.
As for the Representatives’ claims that numerous studies link games to aggressive behavior, there are an equal number of studies that say the opposite. One example is this report done by the Pew Research Center, stating that playing age appropriate games actually yield some benefits for young people. While the scientific community is divided on the issue, our legal system doesn’t have any answers either. Brown v. EMA showed that United States Supreme Court couldn’t find conclusive proof either way that such a link exists. The thing is kids, science experiments only work when there’s a conclusion. That conclusion can be turned into fact, but until then it’s just guesses – especially when it comes to the mind and behavior.
I agree with the Entertainment Consumers Association that this bill will be harmful to not only the industry, but parents and consumers due to misinformation and its undermining the ESRB. Keep going with a system that works, and understand that anything in excess can have side effects. Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist at Texas A&M put it best in an interview with Reuters when the American Psychological Association first released a warning in 2000: "Violent video games are like peanut butter. They are harmless for the vast majority of kids but are harmful to a small minority with pre-existing personality or mental health problems."
So please Congressmen, let’s focus on something more pressing shall we?