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Legislation and Games

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Game Developers Conference Panel: Legislation and Video Games

Jon Wood took in this debate that pits has a politician defend their bill

On Thursday at GDC, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to sit in on a seminar about legislating video games. With a sensational title like Murder, Sex and Censorship: Debating the Morals of Creative Freedom, I know I was in for some pretty heavy stuff. Basically, they had gathered together a game developer, a politician and an academic, three of the major groups with interest in a recent California bill that would restrict "ultra violent" video games. This type of government imposed restriction is nothing new to the industry, in fact, it seems that this issue is cropping up all over these days as more and more people become concerned about the effects of violent video games on young people.

The panel itself was comprised of people to whom this issue is near and dear. The role of the game developer was filled by IGDA Executive Director, Jason Della Rocca. The role of the academic was filled by Dr. James Paul Gee, a child psychologist and educator, and the role of the politician was filled by Leland Yee, The member of the California State Assembly who introduced the bill in question. The entire event was moderated by Brenda Brathwaite.

The seminar began with opening remarks from each of the panelists. Dr. Gee started off by saying that there had been a lot of lot of research and debate surrounding the question of how video games negatively affect people, but that there had been very little research done on how they can be helpful. He briefly discussed the educational possibilities of the medium. He went on to say that, like anything else, if we take in games as a passive thing, and don't really think about them, then we are really missing the boat, the value lies in thinking about the games and what we, as players, are doing.

Next up was Dr. Yee. Yee re-asserted the fact that this bill is only looking to restrict games which are categorized as "ultra violent." He did not go into detail about what exactly this meant, but stated that the proposed bill was not, in fact, a breach of the American 1st amendment, as many people who stand against this bill would argue, because it is being enacted in the cause of protecting children.

The longest, and most fact-supported of the opening statements came from Della Rocca, who started by posing the question "Is this bill going to be helping the children and parents, or is it hurting them?" He went on to quote a number of figures in support of his argument. He did not cite a source for the figures, so take them as you will. Della Rocca told us that 90% of game purchases are not made by children, but rather by adults. On top of that, less than 15% of video games currently on the market are Rated "M." Not all of those games are "M" rated for ultra-violence, so he estimated that roughly 1-1.5% of games that might be purchased by children actually fall into the category in question. He also said that there has been a general lack of respect for what game developers are actually doing, given that many of the people who are on the opposite side of this argument do not understand gamers, or gamer culture.

Given the fact that this is the Game Developer's Conference, the debate turned fairly one-sided as the mood in the room seemed against censorship. One thing that was said by Brathwaite, the moderator, was that everyone involved really wanted the same thing. The games industry doesn't want people of inappropriate ages playing games with an "M" rating. The seminar really left me with one question: What can be done to keep video games from having harmful effects on players? One of the suggestions was that there was not enough hard research to link video games to real-world violence. Another option is obviously legislating against ultra-violent games; still another is to educate parents and children as to the context of what they are seeing.

In the end, nothing was resolved, and the admittedly biased crowd turned against Yee. At session's end, a number of audience members waited in line to ask questions that would go unanswered, much like the issue itself.

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Jon Wood