Game violence-- the BC solution?

by Alan Zisman (c) 2000. First published in Vancouver Computes, October 2000

BC makes the tech news again. Way to go!

No, not for growth of the local high tech industry. And not for the bogus posting of fast ferries for sale on E-Bay.

This time, we made the international technology news for provincial government restrictions on video games.

Yes, the summer announcement that BC was going to require that the game 'Soldier of Fortune' be treated the same as pornographic videos made this province one of the few political jurisdictions (along with the city of Indianopolis) to go on record as wanting government regulation of what people play.

Hot enough news to make the July 31st Question of the Week on the popular site "Is governmental regulation of the game industry necessary?"

Of course the issue doesn't originate with the BC government. The same GameSpot page notes that four major health organizations recently released a paper stating that violence in the media could have detrimental effects on children.

Notice, however, a couple of points, even in this very brief summary.

First, note the weasel words, like "could". Many game-players like to respond that they've played violent games for years without turning into serial killers. And they're right. Of course, many people smoke for years without getting lung cancer.

But the other point in the report endorsed by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry is that we're not really talking about a computer or video game problem, but rather a media problem. More than that, the acceptability of fantasy violence is a broader social issue.

In fact, the studies cited in the two page release by the four US health organizations looked at violent content in movies, television, and movies?not video games. Still, the report suggests that video game violence may have effects that are "significantly more severe" than the media actually studied.

Overall, the report suggests, that media violence helps make children see violence as an way to solve problems and that it desensitizes children towards real life violence. As well, it leads children to view the world as a nasty, violent place. Finally, the report holds that children exposed at a young age to violent content are more likely to exhibit violent and aggressive behaviour later in life.

When the GameSpot viewers were asked to vote on whether government regulation was necessary, however, 87% of the more than 3600 voters said no?perhaps not surprising given who were likely to go the site.

British Columbia, besides ordering action of 'Soldier of Fortune', announced plans to develop a mandatory rating system, to ensure that retailers or renters do not make violent games available to young children. BC is thus the first government in North American to impose compulsory ratings on the game industry.

Since 1994, most game companies have participated in the voluntary Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), an industry-run ratings system designed to preclude government regulation. BC Attorney General Andrew Petter, however, stated: "I think many parents would be shocked as to what the industry considers 'mature' as opposed to 'adult." Since 1994, the ESRB has rated over 5,000 games, with only 7% receiving a 'mature' rating, and even then, there's little evidence to suggest that retailers and game renters actually restrict sales of such-rated games.

Like other media, spokespeople for the game companies claim that they're just giving the public what the market wants. And they're right?there clearly is a market for violent games. This, however, doesn't free them from responsibility?video game companies advertise to help create a market for their product, and seem to be forever pushing to expand the limits of what's acceptable.

And what is acceptable varies from place to place. Traditionally, North America has rated media for sexual content, while turning a blind eye to violence. Rating organizations in Sweden, in contrast, take violent media very seriously, while generally feeling that sex is harmless.

In the end, though, public attitudes will make all the difference. Parents who take an interest in what their children watch and play should feel that they have the right and the responsibility to set family limits on what's acceptable?for TV shows and movies, video and computer games, on the Internet, and on the playground and in the back yard.

Parents who can't be bothered to monitor their children's viewing and playing can't expect either the games industry or the government to take over their responsibilities for them.

At the same time, when a clear public consensus builds, as it did in the 1980s about drunk driving, it's reasonable to expect legislation, regulation, and the courts to follow that consensus.

If, as the BC government and the four US health organizations suggest, media and computer game violence does negatively affect the way children behave, then it's up to all of us to take control.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan