Letter to the Editor – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Hey all – 

So, I just spent like 2hrs drafting this letter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and I thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be a great idea to post it to my blog so I can then drive other people to it?”  Well, I thought so, and based on the submission guidelines there, I think I’m safe to actually get published.  So, check it out.  

I am writing to you to speak out about a Supreme Court case that means a great deal to me.  Like many 20-somethings and older, video games have become an integral part of my relaxation, my social life, and my self-identity.  In recent years, gaming has grown-up quite a bit, just as we gamers have grown up.  This has resulted in some very mature content, and some very mature themes in video games.  And therein, it would seem, lies the rub. 

It would seem that while video games and video gamers have grown up over the years, the same can’t be said for the perception of gamers.  More often than I would prefer to think about, video gaming is still seen as a realm of the juvenile—of 12 year old boys with pimply faces playing Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo, which to put things in perspective, turned 25 years old on Oct 18th.  It is this perception, combined with the mature content of video games that brings me to my current cause of concern. 

In Supreme Court case Schwarzenegger v. EMA that will be heard on November 2nd.  The latest of many attempts, Schwarzenegger in his role as Governor of California, is attempting to make it illegal to sell certain games to minors.  While similar legislation has been struck down time and time again in lower courts as unconstitutional restrictions on free speech, Governor Schwarzenegger, backed by California Senator Leland Yee, decided that this law is worth the millions of tax-payer dollars to pursue this to the highest law in America.  The Supreme Court has taken note of the issue, and has agreed to hear the case.  This is the first time that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on any of the state laws attempting to restrict or ban certain video games. 

The gist of the case is this – if the Supreme Court upholds the ruling of the lower courts, Video games will be granted the same protection as other media –be it music, book, movie, etc under the First Amendment, considering them protect speech.  There could be no governmental restriction on who can buy a certain game based on the content of the game, just like no one can tell you (or anyone) that you can’t buy a book because they disagree with the content of the book.  If the Supreme Court overturns the ruling, video games will then be treated as alcohol, cigarettes, and pornography, and the sale of which is strictly regulated by the government, and there are severe legal ramifications for violating those regulations. 

To me, the latter option seems silly—video games are clearly not pornography.  Video games are not alcohol.  Video games are not tobacco.  Video games are a medium, a very vast medium that contains age appropriate material, across all ages.  This means that some games contain material this is appropriate for a 5 year old girl, while other games contain material that is appropriate for a much older, much more mature audience.  Making video games protected speech (as has been done by the lower courts) is NOT the same as saying that your children should be able to play whatever they want.  Rather, making games protected speech lets YOU, the parent, make the decision as what your children can play, not the government.  I’m not sure about you, but the idea of someone else telling me how to raise my children leaves a rather unpleasant taste in my mouth. 

I think that at its heart, this issue is just not an issue about video games, although that’s what it’s being packaged as.  I say this for a few reasons.  According to the Electronic Software Association (ESA), a whooping sixty-seven percent of American households today play some sort of video games.  While many people consider video games to be “childish things,” The ESA tells us that average age of a video game player is 34 years old and have been playing games for a decade, and in fact, male gamers aged 17 and younger only make up twenty percent of the total video game population.  And here’s the real kick – forty percent of all gamers are women.  This strikes me as a pretty far cry from the image of the gamer as a pimply teenage boy. 

Similar to the music industry and the movie industry, gaming has a self-policing rating system, called the Entertainment Rating Software Board, or the ESRB.  Video game ratings are simple and easy to understand—ranging from games appropriate to everyone, to games that are only appropriate for video gamers seventeen or older.  You find the full breakdown of the rating system here on the ESRB website, www.esrb.org.  What’s more, according to a Dec. 3rd 2009 report by the FTC, video games actually had higher rating compliance than both the recording industry and the movie industry.  Yet still, there are attempts to regulate games.  Not movies, and not music, but only games.  Games which are have a better self-policing agency than either music or movies. 

Just give you some more numbers—again the ESA reports in 2009, 82% of all games sold were rated “E” for Everyone, “T” for Teen, or “E10+” for Everyone over the Age of Ten.  So to put that in perspective for you—we are spending tax dollars on a law that addresses a grand total of 18% of all games sold to a specific group of gamers that makes up less than 20% of the total gaming population, in an industry that does better at enforcing rating compliance than music or movies.  93% of those households with a child under 18, the child’s parents were present when video games were purchased OR rented. 

I’ll just give a second to let that sink in. 

Right, so explain to me again why we need legislation for this?  Why exactly is the governor of California spending so much money to get this passed?  Your guess is as good as mine.  So the real question—why do I, as a single 20-something male without any children, care?  Well, it’s pretty simple.  This is an issue for parenting, not the government.  Parents should be present to witness purchases by their children and, more importantly, help decide what media their children consume.  Why let the government barge in and start creating more laws that attempt to fix what isn’t broken? 

More than that, an issue much pertinent to single, 20-something mentality, is that this kind of legislation essentially constitutes a form of censorship, and with it, what’s called a “chilling effect,” meaning that this would have unintended consequences.  Making it illegal to sell games to children which mean that in effect, most retailers are not going to carry games they can’t sell to everyone—it makes sense, it’s the safest way to go.  Think about the last time you saw a pornographic magazine in Target—and that’s exactly what I’m talking about.  If developers can’t get retailers to sell their games, they aren’t going to make games that can sold to only a more mature crowd, because no one will be able to buy the games, even if they want to. 

If you don’t believe me, check out the ESRB website – and on the Ratings you’ll see a Rating for AO – Adults Only, meaning 18+.  When was the last time you saw a game with a rating of Adult Only?  How many gamers even knew that rating existed?  I’m very active in the gaming sphere, and I’ve never seen an Adult Only game–because publishers and developers won’t create them, because retailers won’t sell them.  Therefore, I never get to play them. 

So really, why am I writing this?  Well, obviously I hope the Post-Gazette likes it and publishes my article because I don’t think enough people are aware of the issue.  I want people to understand what’s really going on here, and what could really be at stake.  Video games are still young, still coming into their own, and video gaming has a great future ahead of it, but only if we can make sure it has the room to grow and develop content that really matters, and really say something.  And I’m asking you to be aware and to help make sure video games can continue to change, to grow and be something profound and amazing.   

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