Wednesday, October 12, 2005

California AB 1179

The reason I haven't talked about California AB 1179, the bill recently signed into law that criminalizes the sale or rental of certain video games to minors (fines up to $1,000), is that it's clearly unconstitutional.

What a big surprise.

Here are some excerpts from this grandstanding piece of crap. This is lifted verbatim from the bill. Here are the "findings."
1. Exposing minors to depictions of violence in video games, including sexual and heinous violence, makes those minors more likely to experience feelings of aggression, to experience a reduction of activity in the frontal lobes of the brain, and to exhibit violent antisocial or aggressive behavior.

2. Even minors who do not commit acts of violence suffer psychological harm from prolonged exposure to violent video games.

3. The state has a compelling interest in preventing violent, aggressive, and antisocial behavior, and in preventing psychological or neurological harm to minors who play violent video games.

Well, somebody back up a truck so we can drive it through this bill. To begin with, there is absolutely no research consensus on the effect of "violent" video games. That's why they inserted that catchy little phrase "Even minors who do not commit acts of violence suffer psychological harm from prolonged exposure to violent video games." Do they? There's absolutely no consensus on that, either, but it sounds really impressive.

Look. For every study that says video games increase the tendency toward violent behavior, there's another study (or sevral) saying that they don't. There are also studies showing that video games increase creativity and motor skills.

All of these studies, by their nature, usually involve relatively small sample sizes, and they don't really mean anything unless their results can be replicated by other researchers. And if video games do actually increase anti-social behavior, I guarantee you that films and music do the same thing. Does that mean we can criminalize the sale of anything that increases "anti-social" behavior? What does "anti-social" even mean? Where in the world do you draw the line on that?
I've got no problem with controlling access by minors, mind you. Criminalizing the sale or rental of these "dangerous" games, though, is something else entirely. That opens the door to criminalize the sale of anything that enough people don't like.

This is America. That's not how it works.

So the alleged justification for this bill is totally unfounded (and dangerous besides), but it gets worse. Here's the section that defines what material is included. Look at this:

"Violent video game" means a video game in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being, if those acts are depicted in the game in a manner that does either of the following:
1. Comes within all of the following descriptions:
A. A reasonable person, considering the game as a AB 1179 Page 3 whole, would find appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors.

B. It is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community as to what is suitable for minors.

C. It causes the game, as a whole, to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

2. Enables the player to virtually inflict serious injury upon images of human beings or characters with substantially human characteristics in a manner which is especially heinous, cruel, or depraved in that it involves torture or serious physical abuse to the victim.

In other words, if a "reasonable person" finds that it appeals to a "deviant interest" in minors, the community is "offended" by it, and the material lacks "value," then it's sale/rental can be criminalized.

Not so fast, Sparky.

Three problems: one, the phrases "reasonable person" and "deviant interest" are almost wholly undefinable, not to mention "suitable for minors." Good luck with that. Two, almost every form of expression, with only extremely rare exceptions, is considered by the courts to have value. Three, is it even legal to separate out minors as a class for this purpose? Every judge who has ever ruled on this question, to the best of my knowledge, has said "no."

So, once again, this is an opportunity for morons to grandstand and prove once again that they don't understand that our Constitution is designed to make people uncomfortable. Free, but uncomfortable. The fact that they're uncomfortable about minors playing violent video games does not in any way give them the right to criminalize the sale or rental of those games. That's the Constitution--it grants freedom to such broad degrees in so many ways that it makes all of us uncomfortable.

I think that's why it works.

Hell, I'M uncomfortable about minors playing violent video games. But at the same time, I know that criminalizing the point of sale is an incredibly bad idea.

Now, as I've written before, is there a legitimate debate to be had about violent content in video games and the ability of underage consumers to buy those products? Absolutely. And the Entertainment Software Association has brought this on themselves by not being proactive. I explained what they needed to do to manage this months ago

Here's the short version of that column: find out if there really is a problem, and if there is, then fix it.

Wow. Crazy talk.

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