Today is when we are all supposed to learn the fate of Jack Thompson as Judge Tunis is expected to issue her recommendation on penalties for Thompson’s professional misconduct. It seems somehow appropriate then that today we look back at another Florida personality who was also supported legislation against selling violent videogames to minors.
From pages 16-18 of the May 1998 issue of Next Generation magazine comes the story “Outlawed in Orlando?”
Two politicians in Florida, Representative Barry Silver (Dem.) and Senator John Grant (Rep.), are promoting two bills that would “prohibit the public display of … videogames displaying graphic violence” throughout the state of Florida. Although the bills have a long way to go before becoming law, the IDSA (Interactive Digital Software Association), the videogame industry’s Washington D.C.-based watchdog organization, warns that Florida garners face a “very real threat” of widespread restrictions and maybe even a total ban. And if one state successfully adopts such a policy, others may follow.
The bills are primarily targeted at coin-op games featuring violent content “including, but not limited to: decapitation; dismemberment; repeated instances of blood-letting; or grotesque cruelty.” Grant and Silver want all coin-ops that feature such “graphic violence” removed from public areas, including theater lobbies and family arcades. “We’re taking this very seriously,” says Elliott Portnoy, counsel to the AAMA (American Amusement Machine Association), the coin-op industry’s trade organization. But what makes these bills threatening to all gamers are their vague and loose wording. Gail Markels, the IDSA’s general counsel, warns that, if passed, the law could be used to remove boxed games from store shelves, outlaw titles such as Mario and Crash Bandicoot, and even ban anyone under the age of 18 from entering an Electronics Boutique store. “We are always concerned when legislation is proposed,” warns Markels, “but these Florida bills are especially troubling because they are not limited by any strict definitions of what the proposed new law could do.”
The bills, tentatively labeled the Children’s Protection from Violence Act, take two virtually identical forms: Senate Draft SB696 and Florida House Bill HB3341. To take a step closer to becoming law, the bills next have to be approved by committee, and this is where videogame trade bodies such as the IDSA, the AAMA, and the AMOA (Amusement & Music Operators Association) are targeting
“On a lobbying level, our response to the bill is essentially two-fold,” explains Markels. “First, we would educate the committee about the industry’s efforts to self regulate. The videogame industry already adheres to a voluntary system of ratings and has been applauded by politicians such as Senator Lieberman, who called the ESRB rating system the most comprehensive rating system in the entertainment media, and child advocacy experts such as Peggy Charren. As a result, we don’t believe that legislation is necessary because the industry has already stepped up to the plate. Second, prior attempts to restrict the availability of violent content to minors or adults have been
H 3341 Violent Video Game/Public Exhibition
H 3341 GENERAL BILL by Silver, (CO-SPONSORS) Bloom; Frankel; Betancourt; Fischer; Murman
Violent Video Game/Public Exhibition; provides definitions; prohibits public showing, display, or other exhibition of video games containing graphic violence in specified places; prohibits person who operates place of business where video games containing graphic violence are shown, displayed, or exhibited from knowingly permitting or allowing any person under 18 years of age to patronize, visit, or loiter in such place of business; provides penalties; provides applicability, etc.
EFFECTIVE DATE: Contingent.
stricken by the Supreme Court, which ruled that such efforts are unconstitutional.” Supporting Markels, claim is the 1989 Missouri case of the VSDA (Video Software Dealers Association) versus Webster. In this instance the state of Missouri attempted to pass a law prohibiting minors from renting or buying videocassettes containing
violent content. The Federal Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, it was rejected, and the state of Missouri was ordered to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees of $200,000. It’s worth noting that the content guidelines found on videocassette packaging — and even the ratings allocated to movies playing in theaters — are not backed up by any kind of law. Stores and movie theaters choose to enforce these voluntary guidelines, but they don,t have to. In fact, legislative attempts to require the enforcement of the MPAA rating system have been declared unconstitutional.
“The only type of content that can be subject to across-the- board restrictions is that which is deemed sexually obscene or harmful to minors in a sexual context,” Markels explains. The AAMA’s Portnoy concurs with Markels’ legal analysis and concludes that the game industry’s first line of defense has to include “convincing the decision makers in Florida that there,s no way this bill can pass constitutional muster.”
Bolstering this line of defense, John Fithian, legal counsel for the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), has pledged that his organization will help fight the bill with financial support, and Richard Holley, vice president of the AMOA, states, “We will offer every drop of support we have in .. doing whatever we have to do.” One of the first steps was commissioning 200 posters for Florida coin-op locations, aimed
at nurturing support and recognition for the parental guidance ratings that already accompany every title.
As Next Generation goes to press, the situation can be summarized as the game industry having effectively circled the wagons and established its defensive strategy. We’ll report developments as they happen — but for now, there seems little threat of any immediate action.
The proposition of the bill has been accompanied by the traditional huffing and puffing of politicians with honorable goals but a slender grip on the facts. Next Generation spoke to House Representative Barry Silver, co- proposer of the Florida bills, and the conversation went like this:
NG: Please can you explain the thinking behind your proposed Protection of Children from Violence bill?
Rep. Silver. Certainly. The bill is trying to allow our society to protect itself and its young people from the scourge of the rampant violence that permeates our society.
NG: A noble goal, I’m sure everyone would wish for less violence in our society. But how would your bill help achieve this?
Rep. Silver: The bill would prohibit the display of graphic video
violence in any public facility where children — people aged 17 or under — are allowed to congregate.
NG: OK, but how will this reduce the level of violence in society? [Pause]
Rep. Silver There’s a direct correlation between the viewing of violence and engagement in violence. This correlation is not 100%, in other words not everyone who views violence will act violently, but some will. Therefore, it is beyond dispute that because of the pervasiveness of violence in our media, it is transferring to our society, people are dying, and our communities are not as safe as they used to be.
NG: Do you have any proof of this? Rep. Silver What do you
NG: Do you have any proof that people who are exposed to fictional violence in the media actually become more likely to commit acts of real violence in the real world? Rep. Silver There is plenty of proof. There is hard scientific evidence to support this. There are no researchers or experts who would dispute this.
NG: Um, I don’t think that this is actually the case. Can you cite any research or any experts who support your claim that your theory is, in fact, “hard scientific fact”?
Rep. Silver I don’t have anything in front of me or in my office. But I have professors and experts who will testify when the bill reaches the committee. You must have heard of all these studies that quite clearly show that when a group of children watch a violent movie, they behave in a more violent manner afterwards than a group of children who have watched a nonviolent movie.
NG: Um, no. I’ve heard of lots of studies that show that when watching violent movies children become excited and their adrenaline levels rise. This then, in the short term, leads them to become more physically active and “boisterous,” sure. But there’s a big difference between this and proof that they, in the long term, become more violent individuals. Besides, watching a football game or WWF has exactly the same effect.
Rep. Silver The real harm here isn’t that you get an adrenaline rush. The real harm is that gradually you get less and less of an adrenaline rush. Kids become desensitized. The real harm is that violence becomes more acceptable. The thrill that people might have one time experienced by watching violence becomes lessened with each exposure, and eventually, the only way to recapture this thrill is to engage in the real thing. And this means real violence in real life aimed against people or animals. NG: Again, do you have any proof? Rep. Silver Kids who play these games grow to feel that they are experts in this kind of violence. They then seek to test their skills in the real world. There’s lots of anecdotal evidence. Just recently there was the terrible case of a high-school kid who walked into a classroom with a gun and shot several of his classmates. Afterwards, he said that he had gotten the idea from a movie. There is too much of this kind of anecdotal evidence to ignore.
NG: That’s a terrible story. Professor Henry Jenkins of MIT believes that news footage or documentary footage of real-world violence is a lot more damaging to kids. And taking your argument to its logical extreme, can we take it that you would support banning the Bible or outlawing Disney movies? Both contain often extreme violence …
“Kids who play these games
grow to feel that they are experts in this kind of violence”
Barry Silver, House representative, Florida
Reps Silver: Merely because there may be many types of violence that might be dangerous to children doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act in specific areas. But certainly, if it’s proven that exposure to nature documentaries and news footage is dangerous, then maybe we should be more cautious. But you must remember that news footage serves some public purpose, and videogames do not. Also, when a child watches news, he is just a passive observer. When he plays a videogame, he is a participant.
NG: Moving on, a couple of legal experts have told us that they believe your bill will prove to be unconstitutional. Something about the First Amendment …
Rep. Silver: No, this is not unconstitutional. I practice constitutional law, I am aware of the issues. I believe that the Constitution does not prevent society from protecting itself by taking reasonable measures against the scourge of violence.
NG: Have you sought the opinion of an attorney general to
Rep. Silver: No, I have not.
NG: Are you aware of the 1989 Missouri case of the VSDA versus Webster? The state was fined $200,000 after attempting to pass an unconstitutional law prohibiting the sale of violent videos
Rep. Silver: Wow. That’s amazing. [Pause].
I don’t understand how that could have occurred. I don’t know Missouri law, but I do know this: In Florida and in every other state, it is constitutional and it is permissible for states to move against the exposure of sexual content to minors. I happen to believe that violence is equally, if not more damaging than sexually explicit material. Therefore, if it is permissible to act against one, surely it should be permissible to act against the other? If the studies indicate that children act out what they see in the media, which presents the greater danger to society? Children acting out acts of sexual explicity or extreme violence?
NG: It seems the focus of your bill is aimed at coin-op games in public
places. But the wording is a little ambiguous, and many people worry that the law could be extended to include home videogames for sale in stores. Is this your intention?
Rep. Silver. No, I hadn’t originally intended to do this. So no, I don’t think the law will stretch this far. If it’s just a box on a shelf, then I don’t see it being affected by this bill. But this is something for me to look into and something to consider.
NG: Have you anything else to add?
Rep. Silver: So far it seems that those who oppose this proposal are the people who believe that corporations have an absolute right to pervert and pollute the minds of young people for profit. I don’t happen to share this view.
Discussing this issue with such people as Mr. Silver is always disquieting because his intentions are, no doubt, honorable. Furthermore, most people in the videogame industry, Next Generation staff included, feel uncomfortable citing merely a “lack of hard evidence” as defense against accusations that violent videogames contribute to increasing violence in society. It’s a defensive stance, and it sounds worrying, similar to the, “There’s no unequivocal proof!” argument behind which the cigarette companies desperately hid for so many years. But whereas it’s long been obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense that smoking cigarettes is bad for one’s health, the videogame/violence issue is a lot more complicated — and it’s up to magazines like Next Generation to make people aware of the broader questions:
Does violence in the media cause violence or merely reflect it?
Do human beings naturally have a certain amount of violence in their nature, violence that will always find an outlet no matter what society may do to suppress it?
Could videogames actually be a harmless, safe outlet for violent urges that otherwise may be directed at real people?
The fact of the matter is that no one knows for sure. Certainly, it’s obvious that the likes of House Representative Silver, while with noble intent, are simply offering knee-jerk reactions to a big, complicated problem they don’t fully understand. MIT Professor Henry Jenkins (interviewed
in NG 29) offers an alternative perspective. “The studies seem to suggest that children at an early age make meaningful distinctions between fiction and nonfiction,” he points out. “The violence that really disturbs them is the violence they can’t break down, the violence that they see as real. This means that the type of media violence that is worst for children is the nature documentaries in which predators eat their prey, or documentaries about [violent] historical events — and yet this is the stuff that teachers, educators, and media reformers think would be good TV for kids.”
“Besides, “Jenkins offers, “trying to stop children’s access to violent imagery in our culture is like trying to empty the Atlantic Ocean with a spoon. You just can’t do it. Violence is a part of who we are. Violence is so pervasive throughout childhood culture that it’s foolish to think you can stop it. If you are going to go down that path, then let’s get rid of all fairy stories, let’s get rid of Shakespeare. Why don’t we rewrite the Bible so Cain and Abel talk things out?”
He has a point, and it’s only reasonable to conclude that — ultimately — the jury’s still out on this one. And while we wait for concrete proof either way, shouldn’t individuals and parents have a right to choose for themselves? The videogame industry has already adopted a voluntary ratings system designed to give parents the opportunity to make informed choices. Congress is happy with it, child advocacy groups are happy with it, the industry itself is happy with it, and even good of Senator Lieberman’s happy with it — and we all know how hard he is to please.
“I happen to believe that violence is equally, if not more damaging than sexually explicit material”
Barry Silver, House representative, Florida
“Why don’t we rewrite the Bible so Cain and Abel work things out?”
Henry Jenkins, professor, MIT