Column: Virtual witch hunt

By Eric Naing

It is report card time for the video game industry. According to the National Institute on Media and the Family, Mario and company get failing grades.

Through the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the video game industry practices self-regulation when it comes to rating their products, much like how the movie and music industries operate. Games can be rated anywhere from EC (early childhood) to AO (adults only).

Most video game retailers have a policy of selling games rated M (mature) only to people 17 years and older. Depending on which organization you ask, these policies have either been a success or a miserable failure. Not surprisingly, the institute gave retailer enforcement a D on their report card. Aside from retailer enforcement, one of the institute’s biggest complaints is that many games are constantly mislabeled, specifically that many games rated “mature” should be rated “adults only.”

The institute’s crusade is hardly altruistic, though. Their constant attacks on the video game industry and the entertainment board’s ratings system are Machiavellian, considering the strong financial interest they have in taking out the board.

In their report card, the institute states that “in response to the ESRB’s recent failure, the National Institute on Media and the Family will convene a summit next year on video game ratings with the leading national organizations dedicated to children’s health and welfare … We plan to issue and endorse a set of ratings recommendations.”

These “organizations” include the National PTA and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, none of which know enough about video games and the industry to accurately rate game content. NIMF wishes to create a whole new video game rating standard and is asking organizations that have nothing to do with the video game industry to craft it.

The ratings board already has an effective and credible ratings system for video games. Establishing a new ratings system, specifically one from the institute, would be needlessly confusing to consumers and could potentially harm the $10 billion video game industry.

The institute’s allies in Washington have also decided to join in the war against video games. Senators Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., recently announced that they will introduce the Family Entertainment Protection Act when Congress reconvenes. The act will not only prohibit retailers from selling M and AO rated games to minors but would also make the government a big part in overseeing the ESRB and in determining if game ratings are accurate.

A similar piece of legislation in Illinois, the Safe Games Illinois Act, was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge on Dec. 2 who said, “In this country, the state lacks the authority to ban protected speech on the ground that it affects the listener’s or observer’s thoughts and attitudes.” This law, championed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, would have restricted sales of games with adult themes to anybody who is less than 18 years old.

The Family Entertainment Protection Act is even more troubling than the Illinois statute because it not only restricts free speech, but also makes the federal government an active participant in video game censorship. This legislation put video games on the same legal ground as pornography and is an affront to free speech.

I’m all for protecting children, but I doubt that is what the institute and Sen. Clinton really care about. The institute obviously has a financial interest in replacing the entertainment board in rating game content and Sen. Clinton seems to be using this issue to attract the family values crowd in preparation for her inevitable presidential campaign.

Every generation, someone makes it their duty to demonize the latest form of entertainment media. Remember: it was once thought that Elvis’s shaking hips would bring about the downfall of American society. Video games are the latest scapegoat for those who wish to censor.

Children should be protected from violent and sexually explicit content, but that should not be the government’s job. Like with movies, books, music and television it should ultimately be the responsibility of the parents to decide what their children are exposed to.

Eric Naing is a senior in LAS. His column appears every Monday.

He can be reached at opinions @dailyillini.com.