Video Game Censorship
I was nine years old when I played my first video game on the Super Nintendo game console. While sitting on the living room floor at my cousin’s house, I found myself jumping down lime green pipes and collecting gold coins throughout Super Mario Brothers. Hearing the ting audio effect as I grabbed coins and eventually reaching the flag to level-up brought tremendous satisfaction to my self-confidence. The familiar 8-bit audio theme music is one I still hum today. Video games and retro arcade games are a favorite pastime of mine. Nowadays, I race luxury cars through the European countryside and other exotic locations in Forza Horizon 2 which is an exclusive video game title for my Microsoft Xbox One game console. When I’m not home, my iPad serves as my mobile gaming device where I play a multitude of app-based games such as Words With Friends, Monopoly or Bronto Blast a game developed by Nevada City, California game studio B Flat Games. Today’s video games are enjoyed by players of all ages and backgrounds. Because of this diversity, it is important to showcase the effect United States public policy has on censoring the content of this entertainment medium.
Play Station, Atari, iPhone, and Android devices. Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto, Candy Crush, Rock Band, Pac-Man, Galaga. Do these brands ring a bell with you? Each title is unique to the multi-billion dollar video game industry. In 2013, consumers spent $21.53 billion on video games, hardware and accessories. According to the Video Game Voters Network, 59% of Americans play video games. The average video game player is 31 years old and has been playing for a minimum of 14 years. Over the last 30 years, video games have a come a long way since Frogger and continue to play an integral part in American culture. For example, video games such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Resident Evil have been made into Hollywood blockbuster movies grossing millions of dollars thus becoming further established in the entertainment realm. Gamers are now able to play video games on traditional stationary consoles such as a Play Station 4, on their computers and more commonly on a mobile device such as an iPhone or tablet.
The primary concern that has brought attention to the industry is violence in video games. Americans became aware of this issue in 1992 with the debut of a rapid action fighting-game called Mortal Kombat. This game in particular was the first to exploit bloody violence and incorporate a finishing move called ‘fatalities’ which required the player to press a sequence of buttons to perform what is essentially a final execution. As a result, in 1994 the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) video rating system was established. The ESRB is a self-regulated organization that was created by the Entertainment Software Association to provide guidance about video game content, elements and advertising. Because of these concerns, state governments have attempted to regulate the sale of violent and sexually graphic video games to minors.
As more of this type of media is created and consumed, it is important to highlight that much like books, movies and television programming, video games are protected under the First Amendment. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution disallows the making of any law reducing the freedom of speech. Based off of California legislation penned by Democratic representative Leeland Yee, for the first time in video game history as it relates to the United States of America, the Supreme Court had the ability to make a final decision to restrict video game sales.
Those who are pro video game regulation argue that there is a direct correlation between violence in video games and increased aggression in minors. Incidents such as the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 were leveraged to substantiate this argument. The problem is greater than a child sitting and watching violent or sexually graphic images happen before their eyes. A video game requires the player to engage and actively make a decision in order for the outcome to occur. For example, in the game Ryse: Son of Rome, which is rated M for a mature audience, the player commands a Roman infantry in various battles to avenge the main character’s family that was brutally murdered. A child as young as 13 or 14 years old could be found playing this game even though it is geared towards adults. Without video game sale restrictions or set time limits, children will be left to their own devices to play such games for hours on end. When children are submitted to violence this does not result in good behavior.
In the words of Republican politician Mitt Romney, “I want to restore values so children are protected from a societal cesspool of filth, pornography, violence, sex and perversion.” The misconception is that government regulation of video games was created to protect children. However, a study conducted by the Video Game Voters Network shows that the average age of the most frequent game purchaser is 35 years old. Instances where games were purchased for a child under the age of 18 years old, parents were present 91% of the time. One must ask if these laws were accurately established to fit the demographics unique to this particular industry.
How do we protect children from obscene material without impeding on freedom of speech? Court cases in Louisiana, Michigan (Entertainment Software Association, et al. v. Granholm, et al.), Minnesota (Entertainment Software Association, et al. v. Hatch), Illinois (Entertainment Software Association, et al. v. Blagojevich, et al.) and Washington (Video Software Dealers Association, et al. v. Maleng, et al.) all found attempts to block the sale of video games to minors as unconstitutional and protected under the first amendment. This is a classic scenario of the United States government attempting to simultaneously maintain order and freedom. The case of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association eventually reached the United States Supreme Court. In a 7-2 ruling, the high court ruled that California’s attempt to regulate the sale of violent video games is unconstitutional.
While I agree that it is imperative to protect children from indecent material in entertainment, I do not think it is the sole responsibility of a governing regulatory agency. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) serves as an excellent resource for parents and companies seeking guidance. However, regulation does not solve 100% of the problem. Parents and guardians must take personal responsibility for the material that their child is exposed to as well. I would encourage parents to take the time to research the premise of the game their child wants to play. It is my opinion that most lawmakers are misguided and create frivolous laws based on an industry they are unfamiliar with. Additionally, I put responsibility back in the hands of the video game industry. I think the video game industry can do a better job at educating both lawmakers and the general public instead of allowing everyone to fend for themselves. This is a co-op venture. The video game industry should help people make a more informed decision!
Video games and the industry are misunderstood. Gabriel Gutierrez, founder of Sacramento independent game studio Nascent Games says, “video games [in the United States] are being regulated just fine. But it is being hampered by highly misguided parental figures. As for public policy, I think it can have an effect on what is produced. But I believe it’s up to us, the developers, to educate those policy creators on what we are making and why.” Nascent Games creations such as Crumple are a shining example of the diversity in today’s video and mobile game marketplace. Crumple is a 2D puzzle plat-former video game created using Flash programming. The game is focused around a character called Enve, an envelope, who wakes up inside the middle of a burning paper factory. Players must guide Enve out of imminent danger by progressing throughout the factory and other levels to escape harm’s way and find out the cause of this incident.
Once the medium is understood, video games can be used as a means to inflict positive change and behavior not just to individuals but to families as well as potential employees. Game consoles such as the Nintentdo WiiU can accommodate multiple players at one time. Family friendly games like Mario Kart, Super Mario or Rock Band can be played together. Another example of games for changes comes from local Sacramento entrepreneur, Sonja Harris. Her startup company is seeking to gamify the interview process and sell the software to recruiting agencies. Regulation of these digital art forms should be left to consumers and self-regulatory bodies such as the Entertainment Software Rating Board not to government legislators.