California legislator Leland Yee wants government to keep minors from buying games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
California Senator Leland Yee is waiting. Five years ago, he authored a bill — signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — that would ban the sale of games rated “M” (for mature audiences) to California buyers under the age of 18. Yee is a former child psychologist who believes passionately that teens and younger kids should not be playing these games, and he wants the government to regulate their ability to buy them. However, courts overturned the law almost as soon as it was signed, and he has appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was heard in November. Now he’s waiting for their final decision, expected sometime this spring.
When Wired.com analyzed the Supreme Court hearing, writer Doug Cornelius wrote, “That the Supreme Court even agreed to hear the case is a sign that some members of the Court may be willing to accept a restriction. A ruling in favor of the California law will likely have a profound impact on the way video games are designed and distributed.” Until now, laws like Yee’s have been thrown out on the grounds that they violate the First Amendment rights of game companies.
A lot has happened since 2005. For starters, the Federal Trade Commission did a secret-shopper study and found that it’s actually pretty hard to buy an M-rated game if you’re a minor. In fact, it’s much easier for teens to get in to R-rated movies — something that is illegal. Twenty percent of teens in the 2008 study were able to buy these games — down from 42 percent in 2006. That’s a big drop.
In an opinion piece published today, Blizzard VP George Rose comes out strongly against Yee’s law — no surprises there. But he makes some good arguments against the ban, including the fact that voluntary measures to keep these games out of kids’ hands are working. “It makes no sense for California to put in place a costly state bureaucracy to replace a privately funded system that is working. The industry’s ratings partnership has been thoroughly tested and praised by the Federal Trade Commission as thorough and effective.”
Rose makes another good point about the science surrounding the supposed link between violent games (which describes the bulk of “M” rated games, though to be fair, they are much more complicated than that): “This movement’s supporters also continually misstate that hundreds of studies support the harmful effects on minors from playing video games with violent content. But there are no hundreds of studies to cite because they don’t exist. In fact, every court that has looked at this issue has found that whatever research is used to support the idea that games with violent content are harmful lacks credibility. If fact, an unprecedented 82 social scientists, medical scientists and media scholars felt so strongly about Yee’s law that they filed their own brief with the Supreme Court. Their conclusion: it was based on ‘profoundly flawed research.’”
All of this doesn’t even touch the issue of how kids play these games, or whether a younger child — or even a teenager — can benefit from them. There are studies showing that playing a tense, action-packed and violent game can improve a variety of skills that are strengthened specifically when the player is under stress. And one father found that when his four-year-old son played Grand Theft Auto, he had zero interest in the many law-breaking activities available in the game. Yes, the game makes it possible to play-act all kinds of morally questionable activities. It also makes it possible not to.
Yee has said that it’s likely most kids who play these games will be able to recognize them as fiction and walk away from that fiction when they put the controller down — his law is meant to protect the few who can’t do that. That’s a pretty hamfisted way of protecting a few kids. Granted, that’s how legislation works, and he’s a legislator. But those few kids who are so vulnerable psychologically need more attention from more personal sources — something this law would do nothing to provide.