Natural Born Regulators

If the only movies you had ever seen were Natural Born Killers and Sin City, you might conclude that all movies contain excessive violence. But would that really be a fair assessment of all movies? Of course not. But that’s essentially what’s going on with video games in America today. A few violent titles are being used to indict an entire industry.

In particular, clips from games like Grand Theft Auto and 25 to Life are often shown on TV or during press conferences when critics are advocating government regulation of the video-game industry. In fact, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if those two games are mentioned during Wednesday’s hearing on the regulation of violent video games in the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution.

But those games are the exception to the rule. The vast majority of video games sold each year do not contain intense violence or sexual themes. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), the video-game industry’s self-regulatory labeling body, places ratings and numerous content descriptors on almost every game sold in America today. These ratings and descriptors are remarkably detailed and displayed prominently on all game cartons, making them easy for parents to evaluate.

Of all the games that ESRB reviewed in 2005, less than 13 percent were rated “Mature” (M) or “Adults Only” (AO), the categories that contain the sort of violence critics are concerned about. In fact, less than 1 percent were rated Adults Only. Thus, around 86 percent of all games sold in 2004 were rated either “Early Childhood” (EC), “Everyone” (E), “Everyone 10 and older” (E10+), or “Teen” (T). Moreover, the Progress & Freedom Foundation recently compiled the ratings for all of the top-20 video and computer games between 2001-2005 and found that over 80 percent of the most popular games were rated either “E” or “T.” If one removes from the count the various “Grand Theft Auto” and “Halo” titles (there have been multiple best-selling versions of each game), the percentage of “M” rated games drops even further.

Advocates of video-game regulation cannot build their case on the contention that most games today contain extreme violence or sexuality. But that probably won’t stop them from trying to do so at today’s hearing.

Others at the hearing might make the argument that there is a clear correlation between violent games and destructive social behavior. But that’s another myth, as no such correlation has been proven.

Indeed almost every important social indicator has been improving in recent years even as video-game use among youths has increased. Juvenile murder, rape, robbery, and assault are all down significantly over the past decade. Aggregate violent crime by juveniles fell 43 percent between 1995 and 2004. Meanwhile, fewer kids today are carrying weapons to school or are victims of violence in schools than in the past. Alcohol and drug abuse, teen birth rates, high-school dropout rates, and teenage suicide rates have all dropped dramatically as well. These results do not conclusively rule out a link between exposure to games and violent acts or promiscuous sexual behavior, but they should at least call into question the “world-is-going-to-hell” sort of generalizations made by proponents of increased regulation.

Finally, there might be some cathartic or educational benefits associated with many video games. From the Bible to Beowulf to Batman, depictions of violence have been used not only to teach lessons, but also to allow people — including children — to engage in a sort of escapism that can have a therapeutic effect on the human psyche. Kids know the difference between make-believe violence and the real thing. And many games today are remarkably sophisticated, offering players a “cognitive workout” that is far more stimulating, rewarding, and even educational than much of the other media fare that is available.

But what about those games that are extremely violent or otherwise objectionable? Again, a quick glance at the back of any game box provides parents with plenty of information to make decisions for their families. And with most new video games costing between $40 and $60, it is likely that adults will need to be present when their kids purchase games. Indeed, market surveys have shown that the average age of a video-game purchaser is 37, and that parents are present 92 percent of the time when games are purchased or rented. Finally, new video-game consoles offer sophisticated parental controls that allow parents to screen out any game rated over a certain ESRB level.

In sum, the debate over video-game regulation is being driven by myths and misperceptions. Policymakers and critics should consider the facts before moving forward with efforts to regulate the gaming industry, especially since such rules could have profound First Amendment implications as well.

Adam Thierer is senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington, D.C. He is the director of PFF’s Center for Digital Media Freedom.

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