Monday, March 13, 2006

Substantial revisions

Not quite done, but will revise further in the morning

State regulations on video game retail have gamers up in arms. Gamers—those who identify themselves by video game playing—are divided on the issue. Washington, Indiana, and Missouri have issued laws instituting fines upwards of $5,000 for retailers who sell violent or sexually graphic games to minors. Such laws have been spurred into place by such events as the Columbine shooting after which a proposed link between the shootings and video games was popularized by the media. Other violent events, such as a similar shooting in Minnesota, or the shooting of two policemen in Alabama, have been linked to video games by the media. Numerous studies, notably the oft-quoted 2000 study by Dr. Craig A. Anderson and Dr. Karen E. Dill in addition to a 2004 study by David Walsh, have been made on the subject, but results have yet to directly link video game violence to real life violence. However, despite a lack of conclusive data, politicians are cracking down on the ability of children to purchase video games with heavy fines in place for those that would sell games deemed “inappropriate” to minors. To many the restrictions on the proliferation of video games are a violation of constitutional protection stating that no law shall be made “abridging the freedom of speech.” Others, like U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh, Sr. in 2002, have ruled that video games have “no conveyance of ideas, expression or anything else that could possibly amount to speech” and thus enjoy no constitutional protection.
Laws currently in place in several states already restrict the purchase of video games by minors. In Michigan, for example, a law was passed in 2005, (Act No. 108 of the Public Act of 2005,) a retailer who sells games that are deemed “inappropriate to minors” (i.e. sexually explicit, violently graphic) can be fined up to $5,000 for a first offense, $15,000 for a second offense, and upwards of $40,000 for further offenses. What’s more, anyone in charge of a retail establishment who allows a minor to play or even view such a game can find his or herself subject to a fine of $25,000 or 93 days in jail. By comparison, Michigan law on selling tobacco to a minor is a $50 per offense fine and selling alcohol to a minor is a $500 fine and 90 days in jail penalty. The video game industry is currently fighting state regulation of video games with its own regulatory committee, the Entertainment Software Association, the Video Software Dealers Association, and the Michigan Retailer’s Association. The three groups have filed a suit against the governor responsible for the act, Governor Jennifer Granholm. Granholm has signed the retail-control law on video games and claimed that she had good reason for doing so. Granholm has made a written statement concerning the law, that “the graphic nature and wide availability of these games should disturb all of us, whether or not we are parents.”
The population of gamers appears greatly divided on the issue, judging from a tally of forum posts. The majority appears opposed to the act, supporting the retailer’s right to sell games to anyone. However, the minority supporting the act, roughly a fourth of the total posts to several forums concerning themselves with the issue, are more verbose on the subject. This is but one example of a law that has already been passed in several states. Illinois, Washington, Indiana, and Missouri have already enacted similar laws and California may soon follow suite.
Opponents argue that states are choosing to ignore a rating system already in place for video games. Current and proposed state laws propose to judge video games as “suitable” or “unsuitable” for minors by means of state review boards with reviewers chosen by state officials. Opponents to such government-appointed boards point out an organization already in place for the regulation of video games. The Entertainment Software Rating Board, (ESRB) an organization set in place to promote a sense of self-regulation in the video game industry has already been developed. The ESRB, established in 1994, is a self-regulatory body that “independently applies and enforces ratings, advertising guidelines, and online privacy principles adopted by the computer and video game industry.” The ESRB is known for it’s a rating system, and rates all video games submitted to them for review. With a system similar to the Movie rating system, the ESRB rates games with regards to appropriateness for different age groups. Games are rated “E” for Everyone, “T” for Teen, “M” for Mature, “EC” for Early Childhood, and “AO” for Adults Only. According to the ESRB’s website, a 2004 study by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 83% of parents surveyed agreed with the ESRB’s game ratings with U. S. Senator Joseph Lieberman is quoted with calling the ESRB the “best entertainment rating system” in the U.S. Despite such praise, there are problems with the ESRB regulations on games. As a private organization, it has no way to enforce its ratings. Thus the ESRB cannot prevent a retailer from selling a game rated “AO” or “Adults Only” to minors. While ESRB ratings are not mandatory by any means, most of the major video game development companies utilize their system and proudly print ESRB ratings on their video game packaging. Manufacturers are also doing their part in encouraging the importance of the ESRB rating system by reminding reading out the rating of a game in television and internet commercials. Television commercials both display and voice the rating of a game at the ends of the commercial, and a subsidiary of the ESRB, the Advertising Review Council (ARC) monitors all advertising materials relating to video games.
“Why must all this be done?” one might ask. “Why is there such a commotion about video games?” Certainly there have been no cases of people beaten to death with Playstations and even fewer cases of people strangled with video game controller-cables. The question raised is content and the effects it has on developing minds. A 1998 study by Jane M. Healy notes that “frequent exposure to ‘mindless’ television or video games may idle and impoverish the development of the pre-frontal cortex, or that portion of the brain that is responsible for planning, organizing and sequencing behavior for self-control, moral judgment, and attention.” Healy notes that continuous playing of video games (or, as the gamers say, “gaming”) retards physical brain development. In a press release by the American Psychological Association in 2000, it was found in two studies that “playing violent video games like Doom, Wolfenstein 3D or Mortal Kombat can increase a person's aggressive thoughts, feelings and behavior both in laboratory settings and in actual life.” The study used two groups of male minors to compare physical and mental responses to prolonged exposure to video games, the end result—a rise in aggressive behavior in those that played violent video games—seems to indicate that video games cause violence. A quote from the study by Dr. Craig A. Anderson and Dr. Karen E. Dill on the subject states, “One study reveals that young men who are habitually aggressive may be especially vulnerable to the aggression-enhancing effects of repeated exposure to violent games.” This study, though it, too, possesses results that connect video games to real-life violence, specifies that a predisposition for aggression may be more of a deciding factor than the video games themselves. More studies investigating the effects of video games, like a 2004 study done by David Walsh, state that “exposure to violent games increases physiological responses, aggressive thoughts, aggressive emotions, aggressive actions and exposure to violent video games decreases positive actions.” The end result of the research is a strong body of work connecting video games to violent behavior. Perhaps what is more frightening is the use of video games by the United States military in order to desensitize new recruits to the violence of war. In a frightening statement by a military officer, the video games help soldiers “learn to kill.” Thus, both scientific evidence and the United States government acknowledge a link between video game violence and real-life violence.
A similar body of work exists for the positive effects of playing video games. In “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy” (2003) James Gee states that video game players are instead active problem solvers, and that video games serve as mediums for active problem solving and help the brain to learn new ways to solve obstacles and challenges. Another study conducted at the University of Bologna in 2004 concluded that “owning videogames does not in fact seem to have negative effects on aggressive human behavior.” That particular study contradicts previous reports on a proposed connection between video games and violence. A 2004 report in The Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that if video games were connected to youth violence, then the rise in video game sales from $3.2 billion in 1995 to $7 billion in 2003 would have resulted in a subsequent rise in youth violence. Instead, the report states that youth violence is on the decline. Most interesting, perhaps is the counter-argument to the data on the proposed link between violence and video games. Henry Jenkins, in his article, “Make Meaning, Not War: Rethinking the Video Game Violence Debate,” points out that while some studies have shown a relationship between temporary aggression levels and video games, there exists no conclusive data linking actual, real-life violence to video games. He proposes, instead that the individuals who commit real acts of violence do so not because of exposure to video games but because of some predisposition to commit terrible crimes.
This is exactly the point brought up by Internet pundits Jerry Holkins and Michael Krahulik. Affectionately known as “Tycho” and “Gabe” (their pen names,) Holkins and Krahulik operate a webcomic known as “Penny Arcade.” The popularity of their comic, (over 3.5 million fans in countries all over the world and tens of millions of hits on their site per month) has made them highly influential names in the gamer community. Hundreds of thousands of gamers are influenced by their words, and Holkins and Krahulik are known not only for their often searing reviews of games, but humorous takes on the popular media. Their influence on the industry is so profound that harsh words from them have negatively affected sales on entire product lines. The two co-created a children’s charity fund, known as “Child’s Play” which has raised over 13,000 dollars from gamers for hospitalized children. The two are effectively the voice of the gamer community. Is there any doubt then, that the two have strong opinions on the relationship of video game responsibility? Holkins maintains that the drive to go on a shooting spree is not caused by video games, but in the raising of the child, a claim that Krahulik affirms. Another popular columnist/comic writer, Tim Buckley, of the comic “Ctrl-Alt-Del,” claims that blaming video games is a case of shifting blame from poor child-rearing so that parents need not take responsibility for their children’s actions. Buckley subjects himself to a case-study of the effect of video games. He, an avid gamer from childhood through adulthood, affirms that he has never committed any sort of physical act of violence on another human being and thousands of his readers hold this true for themselves. Holkins and Krahulik add that it is parents that should be monitoring a child’s video game purchases, not the State, and that those same parents should be responsible for monitoring those children as they play—to at least become familiar with the sort of games that a child is playing. Scott Kurtz, writer/artist of the webcomic “PvP” takes a different standpoint, drawing upon his childhood with games, and reaching the conclusion that video games are terrible for children. His specific position on the issue is that
“Video games are obsessive. They are violent. They cause children to become violent. They are time sinks. They suck every waking moment away from your kids. When you're kids aren't playing video games they are thinking about how great it's going to be when they get to play video games again. Video games will retard your child's social growth. Video games will stunt their social skills. If you don't make them do other things, video games will turn your children into mindless, unimaginative, illiterate boobs who have no real thing to call their own save the dominance they can reign over other children who are also playing video games.”
It comes across as rather harsh, especially from someone who has, on occasion, represented the gamer community in several conflicts. His perspective is interesting, especially when compared to Holkins and Krahulik. All three are adults who have spent youths alongside arcade machines, but Krahulik and Holkins are taking a wildly different stance from Kurtz. One of the reasons is that Krahulik and Holkins’ livelyhoods are entwined with video games, either affording them a different perspective, or some level of bias in defending their position. What is more surprising, or perhaps less, surprising, given the reader’s point of view, is that both Krahulik and Holkins are both recent fathers, and plan to raise their children with video games readily available. It seems that they plan to practice exactly what they preach, allowing their children access to games as they come of age. Both describe scenarios in which they will both review the games personally, then monitor their children as they play, relying not only on the ESRB ratings of games but hands-on-reviewing of the games to make sure they are appropriate for their children. Krahulik’s advice to parents is for them to watch what their kids are playing and be very aware of their child’s response to the game.
What remains central to the controversy, then, is who exactly should take responsibility for video game regulation. While states are eager to take it upon themselves to regulate video gamer purchases within their boundaries, the video game industry and majority of gamers support the ESRB. However, there remains a large percentage of the minority from both gamers and non-gamers alike that push for parental control over government control over the video games that children play. Scientific research reveals conflicting data on the connection between video games and violence, a point used by those pushing for government regulation and those resisting it. With a wealth of contradictory data, it may very well be up to the parent to control a child’s access to video games.

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