Thursday, September 28, 2006

GAME ON: Video game legislation in Pa

Today's post will mainly be of interest to those folks living in Pennsylvania. Specifically Pennsylvania gamers, as I take a look at a recent hearing a state House committee held about the effect of violence of video games on kids.

This will probably be the last Game On column for awhile, as I'm finding it difficult to do these and the rest of my job in any reasonable time period. Something basically has to give and this seemed like a good choice. Plus, with space shrinking in our Arts section, I'd rather devote my time to reviews, especially with the fall onslaught creeping in. I'll still do news/feature stories, but on a more occasional, and hopefully more timely, basis.

It’s happened in Illinois. It’s happened in Michigan. It’s happened in California.

And it might soon happen in Pennsylvania.

What I’m talking about is video game legislation. A number of states have enacted or looked at enacting laws designed to keep violent video games out of the hands of underage children.

Most if not all of these laws so far have been struck down by federal courts as violating the First Amendment, as well as failing to show a direct link between game violence and the real-life kind.

The Pennsylvania Legislature tentatively began investigating the issue, and the House’s Children and Youth Committee held a hearing last month on the effects of violent games on children.

State Rep. Ronald Walters (D-Philadelphia/Delaware), the prime sponsor of the hearing, said he was concerned about children’s access to such games as “Grand Theft Auto,” which allows one to take on the role of a rather homicidal gangster.

“I watch young people play these games, and they play them for long periods of time,” he said. “It’s hard for me to watch that kind of activity without wondering what kind of effects it’s having on them.”

Walters’ main worry is that the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the main ratings board for the video game industry, does not enforce its ratings, so there’s nothing to prevent a store owner from selling an M-rated game to an underage customer.

“What are we doing subliminally to our children that we allow them to entertain themselves with this type of activity and we’re not watching or at least monitoring to see what the effect is,” he said.

Clay Calvert of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment was among those testifying at the hearing. He says he understands Walters’ concerns but doesn’t think legislation is the answer.

“The Legislature is right to be concerned about violence in society. They are right to be concerned about violence in the media. The question is what is really the answer and from my perspective, I don’t think legislation is,” he said.

“The Legislature in Pennsylvania is stepping deeply into the culture wars when it decides to legislate about violent video games,” Calvert said. “Being against violence is a very popular political decision. Who isn’t against violence in society?”

Calvert added that legislation, or even some form of state-sponsored study into the issue, would be a waste of taxpayer money since, first, any legislation would be quickly overturned by the courts; and, second, it’s difficult to show what direct effect a violent game has on an individual.

Such arguments hold little sway for child psychologist Marolyn Morford of the Center for Child and Adult Development in State College. From her viewpoint, video games are an educational tool first and art second.

“You can never predict human behavior 100 percent, but you can talk about probabilities, and it is more likely that [children] would engage in an antisocial behavior if that behavior is reinforced for them over many hours and if their cohort also supports those sorts of behaviors,” she said. “That’s how games operate.”

Far from being anti-video game, Morford has used games like “The Sims” as a way to help patients who are socially phobic. Her fear is over access and education.

“There is entertainment, but there’s also learning that’s going on, and I think that anybody who ignores the learning factor is ignoring a very powerful motivating dimension of that experience,” she said.

Morford said she did not view prohibitive or punitive legislation as the solution but instead stressed the need for more public education and awareness about the learning effects of video games.

“I would like the gaming industry to not be so stupid and ignorant or act like they’re so ignorant, that this is just like watching a violent movie and not recognizing what kind of power they do have and how they can play into people’s weaknesses,” she said.

Walters said while he would support some sort of legislation, he was more interested in backing a study to investigate the influence of violent video games, much like the Children and Media Research Advancement Act recently passed by the U.S. Senate.

“I’m just asking for a study,” he said. “Whatever the outcome of the study is, I’m willing to accept it. If we find that there is no consequences of this, then I will be someone who will say ‘OK, I accept the study.’

“But if the study says yes, there are things we need to alarm parents about, then we need to make sure that parents know that,” he said.

Whatever the committee eventually recommends, Calvert said the hearing was far from a kangaroo court and that the legislators showed themselves to be fair and open-minded.

“This was not a hostile group of people. They seemed like they were genuinely interested in these issues,” Calvert said. “I think they wanted to learn about the situation. So I give them credit for having an open mind going in. It wasn’t ‘bash the video game industry day.’ ”

Copyright The Patriot-News


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