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Video game ban misses target
Better educating parents about game content best strategy

May 16, 2006
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State Rep. Roy Burrell wants to ban the sale of violent video games to minors. A nice idea, maybe, except that it won't work.

First, courts regularly rule as unconstitutional such bills as House Bill 421 -- similar legislation has already been struck down in California, Washington and Alabama.

Second, children don't buy the games they play. According to the Electronic Software Association, 84 percent of video game purchasers are at least 18 years old. And since 1994, games sold through retail outlets in the U.S. have carried ratings from the Electronic Software Rating Board (ESRB), which clearly indicate the presence of sexual or violent content. Combining these two facts leads to the conclusion that if children are playing inappropriate games, someone older is supplying them.

So why would politicians introduce bills that have little chance of standing up in court, and won't really change anything anyway?

In the best light, well-meaning politicians are trying to find that magic bullet to combat a societal ill the public fears is de-sensitizing young minds to violent behavior. Burrell has been active in a variety of causes that benefit youth.

From a less favorable viewpoint, politicians understand such efforts play well with an alarmed public: video games are the latest scapegoats in a tradition that includes comic books, rock 'n' roll, Pokemon cards and other media likely to tarnish the purity of modern youth.

The fact that Jack Thompson is testifying in Baton Rouge in favor of the bill should immediately set off alarms. Thompson is a Miami lawyer who has made his career denouncing video game violence and telling whoppers like "[There's more research that proves video games harm children] than there is that smoking causes cancer." Thompson thrives on chasing cultural ambulances and evokes no one so strongly as Fredric Wertham, a psychologist whose 1950s book, "Seduction of the Innocent," lead to congressional hearings on the dangers of comic books.

Though the motives of anti-video-game crusaders may be suspect, there's plenty of hypocrisy to go around. Video game publishers and retailers often hide behind the ESRB ratings while continuing to peddle raunchy products. Many retailers make a show of not selling games rated "Adults Only," but the fact is that "Mature" games are bad enough: The much-discussed "Grand Theft Auto" series, for example, allows players to assassinate police officers, conduct home invasions and employ the services of prostitutes, among other things. The industry has a point that the games are clearly labeled, but knows most parents don't understand these ratings.

This last fact points to a more sensible approach to keeping violent games out of the hands of children: a massive advertising campaign to inform parents about the ESRB. Hollywood's scheme for labeling movies (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17) is universally known and understood, and it should be the same for video games. If both sides of the debate pooled their resources instead of fighting one another and educated parents about the rating system, the slack could be taken up by that most elusive but powerful of socially stabilizing forces -- good parenting.

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May 16, 2006
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