by Lynette T. Owens
On April 26, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to take on the case of Schwarzenegger vs. the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA). The outcome of this hearing has great bearing on how age ratings will be enforced for video games that are particularly violent in nature.
In October 2005, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had signed a state law that would restrict the sale or rental to anyone under 18 video or computer games that were deemed violent, specifically, games “in which the range of options available to the player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.” The EMA (then known as the Video Software Dealers Association) filed a lawsuit against the state saying the law was unconstitutional – and won on the basis that the law infringed upon free speech (1st amendment) and that measures were already in place to ensure these types of games were not sold to or rented by minors.
The state of California went on to appeal this ruling to the U.S. 9th circuit court of appeals. Again, the state lost and the law was struck down.
The state finally appealed to the Supreme Court who will hear the case this fall. The mere fact that the highest court in the U.S. has agreed to do this has created a lot of speculation: Will this mean an overturning of all previous court rulings? Or will it uphold the system that is already in place?
As a non-resident of California, I only recently heard about this case. My first reaction to it was “I know we have an age-rating system for video games. Isn’t it already enforced? Why is this a big deal?”
The debate is whether or not it is illegal in the U.S. to sell such games to minors. Yes, there are already age ratings for video games, but there is concern that those ratings are too lax and some games that are passing as ok for a 13-year old are too violent. And unlike selling pornography to minors, it’s not illegal today. The laws around sexual content and minors is highly regulated and defined. But violent content and minors is not.
When you read the news stories about kids committing murders and thefts in homage to the games ‘Grand Theft Auto’ or ‘Halo’, whether or not there is scientific research connecting video game use to violent behavior, it doesn’t take much to understand how we got to this point. Regardless of your feelings about governments regulating video games or the protection of free speech, it is important to understand that video games are unlike other types of media. When you see a violent film, you are a passive participant in it. When you engage in a video game that requires you to kill or maim your opponent in order to win, you are actively making choices about what to do to your enemy (and in many cases, while the action is digital, you may be speaking live to your opponent while you are engaged in combat). The Internet has definitely changed the landscape of kids and video games since the days of Space Invaders.
In a perfect world, and absent a final decision from the Supreme Court, what parents really need is information. And once they have that information, they need to take action. Laws are not enough to ensure our kids are accessing the most age-appropriate content. (The California law in question does not even cover games that are downloaded from or played over the Internet.) Only you as a parent really know what types of games are best suited for your kids.
If you allow your kids to use video games:
1. Understand the video game ratings system in your country. The video game industry today has numerous ratings systems for their games, depending on the country in which you reside. The ratings typically indicate the minimum age required to use the game, and some indication of the type of content that resulted in that age rating. The U.S. and Canada have the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). In Europe, there is the Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) rating system, and in Japan, there is the Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO). Find out what the ratings system is in your country as well as what the ratings symbols mean.
2. Read reviews and talk to other parents. The ratings system is only one piece of data for you to base your decision on. Talk to other parents with kids the same age as yours to see what they and their kids think about the games. You can also read reviews done by parent and internet safety advocacy groups such as Common Sense Media to get their perspective.
3. Keep the video game system in a common area of the home. This will allow you to check-in on your kids and their friends while they are playing the game.
4. Understand the capabilities of your video game console. Many of the major video game systems allow you to block use of video games based on the ratings of that game. And on that note, consider the Internet capabilities of your system: if it can connect to the Internet, you should also be sure your kids are accessing Internet content that you feel is most appropriate for them, too. There are Internet access blocking features in many of the major gaming consoles, but some have the ability to block certain types of content (such as the Trend Micro Kids safety feature for the Sony PlayStation 3) rather than Internet access entirely.