Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Playing Games with Regulation

by Miriam Schulman

What do you get when you cross the holiday shopping season with the season when politicians put out feelers for a possible presidential run? A spate of legislative proposals to control the sale of video games.

In the past week, presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Joseph Lieberman, and Evan Bayh have all submitted federal legislation to keep video games with extreme violence or sexual content out of the hands of children. Add to that the recently passed California law and the recently overturned Illinois law that would fine those who sell "mature" games to minors, and you have tidings of the season.

Lest I be accused of condoning games that encourage players to take a chain saw to prostitutes (Grand Theft Auto) or eat the brains of their opponents (Stubbs the Zombie), let me state at the outset, I don't play these games, and I have never bought them for my children-for the obvious reasons. But because these games are so repulsive, I think they make too-easy targets. Elected officials and parent watchdog groups from across the ideological spectrum can make political hay by decrying them without adding very much to clear thinking about the effects of video play and whether/how to regulate it.

One has only to look at the rating system some of these bills seek to enforce to see the muzzyheadedness. The Entertainment Software Rating Board, an industry group, has devised the categories and allows game producers to assign their own ratings based on the category descriptions.

One of the categories is M, for mature, and designates content that is suitable for persons aged 17 and older. The next category is AO, adults only, which is for persons aged 18 and older. There are some fine distinctions-for example, M games "may contain mature sexual themes," while AO games "may include graphic depictions of sex." But perhaps a more significant issue is whether there is any meaningful distinction between what is appropriate for a 17-year-old and what is appropriate for an 18-year-old. A major public brouhaha last year succeeded in bumping Grand Theft Auto from an M to an AO rating-hardly a victory for video game regulation.

Also, these proposed regulations assume a world of solitary game playing at consoles controlled by parents. In fact, video games can be quite social activities. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that nearly all the children they polled played their video games with friends, siblings, or other relatives. In other words, the fact that your kid may not be maiming and hewing at home does not mean that he or she will never splatter an opponent's entrails across a video screen at someone else's house.

In addition, they can play over the Internet. A Google search on "free online video games" returned almost 15,000 sites. The ones I visited offered access to such games as "Clash and Slash," and "Boom Boom Volleyball," the name of which, judging by the well-endowed women in the icon, does not refer to the sound effects. Neither of these may reach the extreme levels of sex and violence found in some M or AO games, but they are not neutral either.

So what is a parent to do? First of all, accept that whatever regulations legislators devise-at least those few that may survive constitutional scrutiny-will not solve your problem. Your children will be exposed to more sex and violence than you would like, if not via video games than via movies or TV. (Have you seen the Victoria's Secret ads?) Certainly, you should try to control this exposure when they are young by limiting access to whatever extent you can.

But ultimately, your only true option is to talk with your kids. What kind of world is depicted in the games they play, and do they really want to spend a lot of time living in it? This is an argument you will not necessarily win every time, but engaging with your children remains the best way to influence their values and how they react to the sex and violence they will inevitably encounter.

Miriam Schulman is the director of communications at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. A version of this article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News Dec. 9, 2005.

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