Tag Archives | Violence

How 42-Year-Old Porn Might Screw Video Games

“Censors are, of course, propelled by their own neuroses. That is why a universally accepted definition of obscenity is impossible. Any definition is indeed highly subjective, turning on the neurosis of the censor.”

So said U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas in 1968, arguing against most of his colleagues who felt that selling nude magazines to minors should be a criminal offense. The courts, he said, should not decide what’s suitable for people to read. That decision is best left to parents or religious groups.

As today’s Supreme Court grappled with the legality of selling violent video games to minors, Douglas’ dissent in Ginsburg v. New York seemed as relevant as ever.

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Supreme Court to Rule on Violent Game Law, Finally

It’s about time the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in on the matter of violent video games.

The justices agreed on Monday to rule on whether the government should ban the sale of violent games to minors and fine stores $1,000 each time they fail to comply. At issue is a California law, passed in 2005 but struck down by lower courts, that defines violent games as works that depict “killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being,” in a way that’s offensive, appeals to morbid interests and otherwise lacks artistic merit.

So basically, the government would play tastemaker and decide what’s offensive and what’s artistic, what should be treated like porn and what should be treated like culture. If you can’t tell, and haven’t read our previous coverage, this idea unsettles me. I have no problem with video game retailers turning down minors who want to buy Grand Theft Auto, but government should not be at the helm. Video games have a system of self-regulation that’s among the best in the entertainment industry, not to mention parental controls on consoles.

Supporters of the California law argue that video games need the extra regulation because their interactivity makes them inherently worse for children than movies or other media. I’m not going to get into that debate here — check out this recent article by PC World’s Matt Peckham to get a sense of the back-and-forth — but the fact that six states have attempted violent game laws, and none have passed muster with their respective courts, shows that judges aren’t comfortable making video games an exception to the First Amendment.

I’m glad the Supreme Court is looking at this, if only as a way to put an end to all the madness. If the court sides with the games industry — and I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t — it’ll set a precedent for lower courts around the country, and stop the waste of more resources on these misguided laws.


The Video Games Your Kids Shouldn’t Play

Common Sense Media has spoiled the fun of teens and ‘tweens everywhere, releasing a list of 10 games parents should avoid giving their kids as gifts this holiday season.

The list includes 10 alternatives, but that’s of little consolation when most of them are third-tier or year-old releases. For instance, Assassin’s Creed 2 is swapped for last year’s Mirror’s Edge. Battlefield: Bad Company is recommended in place of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Some of the alternatives don’t even resemble the original, like the platform puzzler Braid instead of the fantasy RPG Dragon Age: Origins. I also got a kick out of Demon’s Souls’ downvote partly because of its “depressing vibe” and brutal difficulty that can “break the spirit of even the most seasoned gamer.” How true!

I don’t want to rag on Common Sense’s list too much, as I like anything that helps parents be smart about media, but in general I tend to be wary of “play this, don’t play that” recommendations. One reason is that some of the games mentioned have parental restrictions built in. Brutal Legend, for example, asks at the start of the game whether you want to see gore and hear curse words. It’d be too bad if some teens, especially if they love metal music, missed out on that game, so a more valuable list would say which of these games has parental controls.

But the bigger issue is that the rating isn’t necessarily the be-all end-all. The teen-rated Infamous, for example, lets players become forces of evil (or good, if they choose) and kill innocent people. The game’s not as gory as Borderlands, but it stands on trickier moral footing. Left 4 Dead 2 is a bloody game, for sure, but it demands teamwork with real people online to defeat a common foe.

I’m not saying a 10 year-old should necessarily play either of those games, but a little more understanding of what the games entail, regardless of their rating, can go a long way towards making decisions that keep everyone happy.


Modern Warfare 2: Player Discretion is Advised

modernwarfare2tThe following story has a spoiler on the upcoming first-person shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It’s also a bit of a rant. But even if you avert your eyes now, the game itself will ruin the surprise for you anyway. I’ll explain:

Yesterday, some footage of Modern Warfare 2’s opening scene leaked onto the Internet. You can watch it at GameDat by clicking the video that says “modern warfare 2 leaked gameplay w/sound,” but I’ll tell you now that it sees the player playing as the enemy, experiencing their evil by gunning down scores of innocent civilians at an airport. The nature of the scene is a conversation for another day, maybe once the game’s out and I’ve had a chance to experience it. Briefly, I’ll say that I enjoy seeing video games push the envelope by making people uncomfortable.

What’s really grinding my gears today is how publisher Activision and developer Infinity Ward will handle this sensitive material in the game. Activision says players will get a warning message before the segments occur, along with the ability to opt out and skip ahead.

Who exactly is Activision trying to shelter here? Kids? If they’re playing the game unsupervised — which they shouldn’t be, per the game’s “Mature” rating — I don’t see why they’d be compelled to skip the scene. Extraordinarily squeamish adults? Oh please.

I’m reminded of the “viewer discretion is advised” messages you get before a TV show with explicit material airs, except those warnings occur at the outset of a show, so people know to change channels or make the kids go upstairs. Activision and Infinity Ward, to my knowledge, aren’t putting a warning on the box (aside from the aforementioned “Mature” rating that would’ve been there anyway). Instead, they’re essentially tapping you on the shoulder as you play and yelling, “Watch out! This scene’s going to stir your emotions!”

If you don’t think that’s silly and self-defeating, ask yourself if you’d want that to happen to you during a movie.


Earth to Chicago: Gaming’s “M” is Movies’ “R”

gtaivThere’s a storm brewing in the Windy City over the allegedly unconstitutional treatment of video game ads, with an industry trade group suing Chicago’s transit authority.

This turn of events stems from Grand Theft Auto IV. Last year, a rash of shootings led the Chicago Transit Authority to pull GTAIV bus ads, after a local Fox News report drew a tenuous link between the ads and the incidents. GTA Publisher Take-Two Interactive claimed breach of contract, and the transit authority reinstated the ads, but later banned all advertisements for M-rated games. It’s important to note that R-rated movie ads are still allowed.

That brings us to the Entertainment Software Association’s free speech lawsuit, and a question posed by the Christian Science Monitor: “Are ‘mature’ video games worse than rated-R movies?”

No. Let’s put the “games are worse because they’re interactive” argument aside for a moment and look at the ratings themselves. Here’s what the Motion Picture Association of America says about R-rated films:

An R-rated motion picture may include adult themes, adult activity, hard language, intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously.

Now, here’s the Entertainment Software Ratings Board on the M rating:

Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.

Looks pretty similar to me, especially the phrase “intense violence” in both descriptors. If the ratings themselves are so similar, the point of contention will surely be interactivity. But as courts have repeatedly found, it isn’t proven that violent video games cause violence because you play them, while movies don’t because you watch them.

Whether you like violent video games or not, their first-amendment protections should be a no-brainer to anyone who’s even dimly aware of past laws and lawsuits. I can’t see how the Chicago Transit Authority will emerge the victor in this case.


The Wii's Identity Crisis

madworldFor over two years, the Wii was regarded as a family system, and in many ways, it still is, with Wii Sports, Wii Fit and Mario Kart commanding most of the revolutionary console’s popularity. But a sudden turn of events hint of changes on the horizon.

This week’s release of Madworld — a high-profile and thoroughly blood-soaked affair — drew the ire of the National Institute on Media and the Family. The game’s main character uses a chainsaw and a variety of deadly environmental objects to maim his foes, earning more points for more gruesome kills. Here’s a statement from the watchdog group:

“In the past, the Wii has successfully sold itself as being the gaming console for the entire family and a way to bring family-game nights back into people’s living rooms. Unfortunately, Nintendo opened its doors to the violent video game genre. The National Institute on Media and the Family hopes that Nintendo does not lose sight of its initial audience and continues to offer quality, family-friendly games.”

I don’t think Nintendo will abandon the family audience — it’s too big of a market to lose, for one thing — but there are signs that the Wii is moving away from its image as a console strictly for kids, parents and the elderly.

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The Double Standard of Violent Video Game Laws

Here we go again.

This week, a federal appeals court in Sacramento heard arguments as to whether the government should uphold a 2005 law to regulate and ban violent video game sales to minors.

We’ve already seen the same situation play out in Louisiana and Minnesota, where federal courts have struck down appeals. Other states’ attempts at similar laws never made it this far.

“Aren’t you asking this court to go where no court has gone before?” Appellate Judge Consuelo Callahan asked at the start of the trial–and rightfully so. These laws die without a causal link between video games and violent behavior. This hasn’t changed, though the state’s attorneys tried to raise evidence to the contrary.

Look, I’m all for not selling these games to kids. Even though the games of my youth–Doom, Mortal Kombat–started this hysteria, I understand video game violence looks a lot different now and should probably not be encountered by children unless a parent is there to explain it.

But the same is true for all violent media, whether it’s books, movies or music. Video games are worse, critics say, because they are interactive, but the potential payoff is greater when players identify with a character, deal first-hand with moral and social dilemmas or play online and work as a team.

There exists here a double standard. This law would relegate games to the same category as cigarettes and porn–vices, both of them. Want to buy the next Halo? You might have to pull it from one of those opaque top-shelf racks, the whole thing rapped in black cellophane. I’m of the mindset that video games aspire to the status of art; to treat them instead as porn would be catastrophic.

Another double standard comes to mind. We allow youth sports, which can entail real, physical violence and aggression, because they are viewed as a positive outlet. Why not let video games slide under similar logic?

A favorite argument by critics of violent video game legislation goes like this: Guys like state Sen. Leland Yee, who authored California’s law in 2005, want to punish video games because they don’t understand the medium. A better plan might be to work with the industry to improve self-regulation.

Let’s not waste any more time and money (the Entertainment Software Association countersues every state that tries to cripple the medium) demonizing video games and the people who enjoy them.