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There's long been an argument, mostly by libertarians, that we ought not legislate over personal choices. For this group, and for many, it is believed that we shouldn't create laws about drugs, alcohol, reading material, etc. because these come down to personal preferences. On the other hand, Plato, in his Republic, argued that in order to have a good society we must censor what our children are exposed to. He argues that even the Greek gods might be harmful to developing minds, and that the state should carefully monitor all forms of art and entertainment.
In the United States, laws governing the sale of items like alcohol, tobacco, and pornography have been largely left up to the states. It's been generally agreed upon that minors should not be permitted to see certain movies, allowed to purchase certain reading material, have access to drugs or tobacco, or be able to walk into a bar and buy a martini.
Recently, a California politician wanted to add video games to the list of things that children, tweens, and teens could not have access to if they exceeded a particular rating. While I believe this law was a step in the right direction (for reasons I will outline in a moment), the Supreme Court disagreed with the constitutionality of the law and with many parents and child consumer awareness organizations.
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2 Live Crew and the Video Games Ratings System
In 1992, the year pop groups like New Kids on the Block were still touted for having a squeaky-clean image that parents could approve of, a landmark decision was made that would change the music industry. The court case focused upon a hip-hop group, 2 Live Crew, whose rap lyrics featured very specific and very detailed accounts of sexual acts. The case began in 1990 when their album As Nasty as They Want to Be was declared obscene - meaning that it had been decided that the lyrics lacked any artistic value - after two of the songs from the album were performed live at a 2 Live Crew concert. This was a landmark case for two reasons. The album in question was the first music album to be declared obscene, and the ruling of its obscenity was overturned - setting a precedent for other musical artists.
I remember purchasing the album when I was fourteen. Yes, it had a parental advisory label on it. Yes, I was exercising my right to listen to what I wanted to, but no, even now I'm not certain that was a good thing. There were very grown-up things on that album - and while I agree that the sale of the album should not have been banned, to this day I'm pretty certain that a fourteen year old should have never been able to purchase it.
The video games rating system grew out of growing concern following an increase of violence and adult sexual situations in video games. In 1992, with the release of games like Mortal Kombat and Doom, parent organizations were horrified by the growing level of graphic violence in their children's video games. Senator Joe Lieberman (Democrat, Connecticut) and Senator Herb Kohl (Democrat, Wisconsin) led hearings on violence in video games and whether these instances of violence would lead to corruption and problems in the society at large. In response, Sega of America formed the Videogame Rating Council. Once they began rating, other companies followed suit. However, the ratings were never enforced, and were only intended as a guide.
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Free Speech or Protecting the Youth?
In 2005, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law into effect that banned the sales of videogames deemed to be violent to individuals under 18 years old. His argument was that violent games are akin to sexual materials and that they should not be available to minors. This law was highly controversial and it has worked its way through the courts - the main question being "Do we have the right to limit freedom of speech in the interest of protecting the youth?"
Now, we require individuals to be at least 18 to purchase cigarettes. We've determined that this is the appropriate age so that we can protect children from the harms of tobacco use and nicotine addiction. We've determined that 18 is also the age that a provisional driver's license becomes permanent. 21 is the age where one can legally enter a bar and purchase alcohol. Sixteen is the age that one can drive a car. We have these laws in order to protect our children and teenagers from physical harm.
But we also restrict movies a child can purchase and magazines that can be purchased. Those under 18 are not permitted to purchase magazines or movies that have been deemed to be adult. R rated movies cannot be attended by individuals under 17 unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. NC-17 movies restrict anyone under 17 from attending.
We also restrict the ability of children to have a voice in who their lawmakers and president can be. They are not allowed to vote until they've reached the age of majority, or 18.
The question, when it comes to restriction of kids being able to purchase video games, has been the question of freedom of speech on the part of the companies making video games versus protection of the youth. I bring up these other areas, because there are times when we do create laws in our country to protect the youth, and we do create laws that appear to silence the youth and that monitor what others can say.
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It would seem as though a law banning the sale of video games that are of an adult nature would be in keeping with the laws that we have protecting children from the viewing of movies and print materials that are adult in nature.
There's a reason why video game companies are fighting such a law. While the average gamer is 32 years old, those under 18 years old account for 25% of the gaming industry. Games with a mature rating account for 15% of sales. Banning children from purchasing games, might then lead to a drop in profits. Creators consider that the falling sales of these games would infringe upon their rights to sell the games they want to sell. If you want to hurt someone, and get them riled up into action, hit their pockets. Companies argue that the restriction of video games hampers their first amendment rights.
This motivation for discarding the law banning sales is ridiculous. The profits lost by video gaming companies are likely to not be that much. First, for most kids, parents are the one purchasing video games anyway. Thus, if the mature rating does not bother parents, they are still free to purchase the games. Second, it's unlikely that those children who are purchasing video games with their own allowances are purchasing mature games. While some children might purchase such games, parents are usually the ones who transport children to the stores where games can be purchased. Thus, they still have veto power.
The video game companies might reply by arguing that even if we banned the sales of these games from teenagers, they would play the games anyway because their parents would own them, or the parents of friends would own them. However, that argument has not kept us from banning the sales of pornographic movies, books, and magazines to children.
When it comes to those who are against sales of these games to minors, however, the arguments of the video game companies do not make sense. Parents note that it tends to be these violent games - especially because they contain risqué sexual content - that appeal most to tweens and teens. Owning these games becomes a status symbol. Because of this, and because children and teenagers are not always with parents when purchasing games, safety measures need to be put into place. While this may hurt the pockets of video gaming companies, it will not hamper their abilities to sell games. After all, parents who don't care whether the games are violent or sexually charged will still purchase them for children. It will, however make it so that children cannot walk into the store and buy the games on their own - the same restriction we have for pornography, tobacco, and alcohol products.
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Should We Restrict Video Games?
We restrict the sales and distribution of all sorts of things. If it were merely a matter of freedom of speech, then the video game industry would still get by - because they're not being asked to avoid making the games they want, only to avoid selling such games directly to minors in order to protect young minds. I'm unsure as to how this is restricting the freedom of speech since minors only make up 25% of the consumers of video games and mature video games just account for 15% of sales. Of those mature games, a handful would be the kinds of games that we're holding up to scrutiny.
There's another solution. Instead of creating a law restricting such sales, we should first develop a standard system of rating the video games that are available. Today, the ratings process is optional, and companies pay to obtain the ratings for their games, but not all companies do this. If the ratings system were compulsory, the way that the ratings system for movies is, then we have a standard by which to judge the violence and sexual situations included in a variety of games. Because only a portion of game sales would need to be restricted, the categories need to be refined. Not until there is an across the board system of rating games can we reasonably consider restricting the sales of such games.
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Barnes, R. (June 26, 2011) "Supreme Court Strikes California Law Banning Sale of Violent Video Games to Minors." The Washington Post.
Philips, C. (May 8, 1992) "Appeals Court Voids Obscenity Ruling on 2 Live Crew Album." Los Angeles Times.
Video Game Statistics http://www.onlineeducation.net/videogame