On April 26, 2002, when the news first hit the airwaves about an expelled student shooting sixteen people at a school in Germany, one of my co-workers turned to me and sardonically said, Obviously, that young man played Doom.
It was meant as black humor. Being in the industry, were well aware that games have joined television and the movies as one of todays boogie men and political footballs. It is just so easy to propose censorship or a ban to court votes from guilt-ridden parents, who would rather blame violent games instead of whatever the real cause is whenever some poor, disturbed kid decides life is no longer worth living and determines to take some of his (perceived) tormentors with him.
As it turns out, Robert Steinhaeuser, the 19 year-old expelled student in question, played computer games, particularly Counterstrike, leading the German media to immediately fix the blame on games. It has now entered the political arena, with German politicians calling for a ban on violent games and a game rating system (oh, and stronger gun control laws, too. Yeah, thatll fix the problem. Germany already has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world. Obviously, guns have heretofore undiscovered mind control powers that make people use them. No wonder we had two World Wars! Remember, people dont kill people, guns do.)
This is all just so tiresome and lame. Never mind that the warning signs of a disturbed mind were there for months, if not years, before this happened. Never mind that the parents admit they knew young Steinhaeuser was obsessed by violence (his mothers words, not mine) and made some attempts to get him interested in other hobbies (God forbid you should take away the computer and guns from an obviously disturbed kid and seek help from a professional). Never mind that their son intentionally hid from them that he had been expelled from school months previously, which might have set off further alarm bells in their head. No, if one disturbed kid can do something like this, obviously it is time to overreact and restrict the rights of the 99.99999% of people who buy games and/or guns and dont commit crimes. Do it for the kids, for Gods sake!
Now Germany gets to go through the utter stupidity and political gamesmanship that we in the US have been experiencing for years. And still are: Representative Joe Baca of California has introduced to Congress the oh! so objectively named bill, The Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act of 2002. The bill seeks to protect the precious bodily fluids of our kids (defined as anyone aged 17 or under) from such things as depictions of amputation, decapitation and killing through use of lethal weapons, rape, aggravated assault or other violent felonies. It would do this by making it a Federal crime to sell such a game to a minor, with fines and jail time.
Oh, yeah, thats just what we want, Congress regulating the First Amendment. Who gets the dirty end of the stick, the Department of Homeland Security? Will we be stationing the FBI in retail stores to insure some hapless minor doesnt accidentally pollute his mind with a mature-rated game? For that matter, who determines just what a mature-rated game is? Right now, the Entertainment Software Rating Board determines the rating, with game publishers voluntarily submitting games to be rated. Believe me, the ESRB is not noted for being particularly harsh or consistent. For example, Ultima Onlines The Second Age expansion pack was rated Mature (age 17+), but the latest one, Third Dawn, was rated Teen (age 13+). Yet, if you buy Third Dawn, you also have access to all the content in The Second Age. So which is it?
For Bacas bill to have any teeth, for the judiciary to take any notice of it whatsoever, a rating system will have to be mandatory. That way, Baca and his buddies will know who to throw in jail when little Jimmy manages to convince some hapless, minimum wage cashier who doesnt own a computer or play games to sell him Baby-Eating Commandos 4: Dude, Wheres My Niece? Without a rating system mandated by law, voted on and passed by Congress, Bacas bill is unenforceable and just so much toilet paper. Thankfully, Ol Joe has provided some standards in his bill on what is allowed in a non-M rated game and what isnt, so passing the bill is tantamount to passing a rating system. It is extremely unlikely the Supreme Court will let that obvious violation of the 1st Amendment go by.
All sarcasm aside, let me be straight with my personal opinion: I think some games go so far over the edge of propriety that the publishers ought to be dragged out back and jacked around the alleyway with a garbage can lid until they acquire some sense of ethics and morals. Grand Theft Auto 3 comes to mind. Is this the best we can do as an industry, to pander to a trailer trash mentality by having power-ups derived from using a hooker, then killing her and stealing her money? When sinking to such a low common denominator that we make games that feature hiding the bodies of the murdered, taking contracts from crime lords to get promoted in the criminal organization, shooting down planes to steal drugs, et al, do the developers ever look in the mirror and wonder how it all came to this? Do they ever think of how they got into the industry to make cool, compelling games, understand how low they have sunk to make a buck and throw up? Unlikely; remember, this is an industry famous for executives taking employees to strip bars as a reward and which refers to anything they dont like as gay. With that kind of culture, it is amazing we get any non-M rated games at all.
And what about that other content, the people who play the games? This distinction is especially crucial in online gaming. Youre lucky if you can get through a half-hour session in any online game without seeing personal attacks or harassment, some sort of racial or gender-based epithet or language that would make Satan blush and cover his ears. The last time I played a persistent world game and got into a player versus player battle with another player, the first words out of his mouth were, Prepare to die, fag. Are we going to have Federal monitoring programs inside online games, to make sure our impressionable youth isnt exposed to this? Believe me, I wouldnt let a young child of mine play any online game in existence without carefully monitoring what is going on and making sure the child understood what was happening.
And thats the point, isnt it? I really dont care what game a child plays, as long as a parent, guardian or other responsible adult is there to monitor the situation and take action as needed. I cant understand a parent who would let his/her kid have access to any computer game at home without playing it first, at least for a little while. I just know Im going to hear this from at least one parent: Between work and lifes little chores, my life is at a premium these days and there just isnt time. Heres a concept: Get over yourself. When you had the child, you took on a responsibility to see that your son or daughter was raised with a sense of right and wrong and can distinguish between fantasy versus reality. It isnt Joe Bacas job, it isnt the publishers job, it is your job. Therefore, it is your responsibility as a parent to do that research, even if it means less time to sleep, drink or hang out with your friends.
More, you have to discuss games, fantasy and reality with your child, just as responsible parents forty years ago discussed Warner Brothers cartoons and The Three Stooges with their kids, to make sure they understood the distinction. If you played Grand Theft Auto 3, discussed the themes with your 13 year old and trust him or her to play it alone, more power to you. If you dont monitor what your child is playing and just use the computer as a baby-sitter to get the kid out of your hair while Oprah is on, damn you to hell. It is a complex world out there; kids need all the help they can get if they are going to succeed well enough to support you in your dotage.
No, you cant be perfect and, yes, the parents of one of your childs friends will be more permissive and hell go over there to play Blood-Splatter 8: Dude, Wheres My Transfusion Kit? and think hes clever and putting one over on you. If you talk to your kid about the important issues, who cares? Do you really want Joe Baca and the 21 other sponsors of The Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act of 2002 to determine what can be sold to your child and what cant? How about what you get to see, hear, read or play? Dont scoff; if they can get away with this crap, just wait and see what they do to TV and movies.
And while Im moralizing, heres another one: Get rid of the rating systems.
Not just for games, but for movies, TV, videos, you name it. The only reason these voluntary rating systems exist is because Federal politicians strong-armed industries into them under threat of pushing a bill through Congress to make them Federal laws. For Gods sake, the ESRB ratings came into being in 1994 as a closed-door deal between game publishers and a couple Senators, to keep Congress from having hearings on game violence and the game industry in general. I was told that confidentially by one of the key persons involved and I believe it. The politicians knew that any such mandatory rating law would be struck down by the Supreme Court as a violation of the First Amendment, but they also knew the publishers didnt want to spend the millions of dollars it would take to get before the Supreme Court and have the law struck down. Hence, the voluntary rating systems, which are voluntary in the same way that giving your wallet to a thug who has a knife stuck up your nose is a voluntary act.
Get rid of them, I say, and if the politicians want to look like utter asses, make them pass mandatory ratings laws which the Supreme Court will certainly strike down. It wont stop the pols; there are always mush-headed people who think the government ought to play Mommy and Daddy and will vote for anyone who will tell them it isnt their fault they are a lazy, unworthy parent. Enforcing the First Amendment will, however, put the responsibility squarely back on those who deserve it: The people raising the kids.
Well always the likes of Robert Steinhaeuser, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, young people who commit crimes. It is unlikely any amount of responsible parenting could have saved those kids once the damage of neglect was already done and they snapped. Well have kids like them whether they play video and computer games or not. Some people are just plain crazy; it happens.
If we dont wake up and put a clamp on the pols, however, what we may not have is games, movies and other media that push the edge, whether or not people like me approve of the results of that edge-pushing. See, I may think the content of Grand Theft Auto 3 is trash, and I may think youre a moron for buying it and encouraging publishers to develop more of its ilk, but that is my value judgment. The beauty of the First Amendment is that it not only allows me to berate GTA3 in public, it allows the developers of the game to thumb their noses at me and keep right on selling it to people who disagree with me. The government in this country doesnt get to make those value judgments; our founders saw what a really lousy concept that was and put in safeguards to prevent it. This is so startlingly beautiful a thing that it actually brings tears to my eyes.
If we dont protect that right, however, the pols will just keep trying. So lets get rid of the rating systems, already, and send the matter to the Supreme Court. Do it for the kids!