In Depth: Video Games, Violence and Warning Labels

Sure as the sun will set, people will blame any media they can for the violence in our world.  Video games have taken their fare share, and continue to do so.  Recently a lawmaker has suggested adding warning labels to video games much in the way the government currently puts warnings on alcohol and tobacco.   This started as a quick news brief, but before I ever finished writing the situation took a new direction.  it came to light that Russian media outlets had begun to suggest a connection between Modern Warfare 2 and the recent terrorist attack in Moscow.  Unfortunate timing to say the least.

Straight out of an episode of Code Monkeys (look it up on Netflix instant if you have it), Congressman Joe Baca (D, California) has recently revived the Video Game Health Labeling Act by referring the bill to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.  The act would require any game with at least a T (Teen) rating to include a sticker that would read, “WARNING: Excessive exposure to violent video games and other violent media has been linked to aggressive behavior.” Baca references  “scientific studies from the Pediatrics Journal, University of Indiana, University of Missouri, and Michigan State University” which indicate a “neurological link between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior in children and teenagers” in his argument for the legislation.  This of course ignores not only the numerous studies indicating the lack of a link between games and violence and the largely circumstantial evidence in many of the studies that do suggest said link.

Baca made the following statement in regards to the act, “We must hold the video game industry accountable and do everything in our power to ensure parents are aware of the detrimental effects that violent games can have before making decisions on which games are appropriate for their children to play. I am proud to introduce the Video Game Health Labeling Act, and am hopeful this legislation can work to stop the growing influence of violent media on America’s children and youth.” As hinted at before, this isn’t Baca’s first attempt at passing the law.  The act failed to progress beyond committee in 2009, and was never discussed or voted on the house floor.  Baca is most likely hoping that a new Republican controlled congress (and therefore committee) will view the act more favorably than his last attempt and the events in Russia will help sway them in his favor.

What is really striking about this act is that it essentially seeks to achieve what the industry has been doing voluntarily for years.  The ESRB has reviewed games in order to properly label violent and other mature content, and has then stuck that label right on the cover of games for all to see.  Parents should already be capable of discerning if a game is appropriate or not for their child based solely off of this rating; is little Timmy a teenager yet?  No?  Well then he probably shouldn’t play a game rated “T” for teen.  Add to that the fact that today’s consoles make it easier than ever to regulate what games your child plays.  If you set your Xbox to require a pass-code for any game rated T or higher, little Timmy won’t be able to play Alan Wake when you’re not home, so long as you don’t give him the code.  But what about a game like Spider Man Web Of Shadows, which is rated T but quite frankly is no worse than the average Saturday morning cartoon show?  While I can’t speak for the PS3, the Xbox lets you add the game to a list of exceptions once you’ve entered the pass-code, so just like that, the one T rated game Timmy can play is available to him, no code needed.  It really does not get easier than this when it comes to regulating what your kids are playing.  Combine that with the fact that stores are already prohibited from selling M rated games to minors, and most do in fact follow that law (Target for example even requires scanning of a valid state ID), this is about as bonna-fide non-issue as you can get. In fact, the law blatantly acknowledges the ESRB’s ability to properly rate games by using their ratings as a measure of what games to play the suggested warning labels on.  What’s the point then?

The act would almost certainly be doomed to failure under normal circumstances, but the recent events in Moscow may have an unfortunate effect.  Odds are if you are reading this site, you have at some point played Modern Warfare 2.  Even if you haven’t (it must be cozy under that rock!), you likely heard about the controversy surrounding the “No Russian” level where-in you basically walk through a Russian airport slaughtering civilians.  It was a fairly poor, mostly forgettable, and optional part of the game’s single player, of which most gamers barely even touched.  None-the-less it is back in the news.

Most likely the work of Chechen rebels, this past Monday a man equipped with explosives, launched a suicide attack at the  Domodedovo airport just outside of Moscow this past Monday.  The attack left over 30 dead and at least 180 injured.  While some rather minor similarities can be drawn between the game’s portrayal of the terrorist attack and the real life events this week, some Russian media stations, and as a result some western media stations as well, have concentrated on those similarities to suggest not only may have MW2 been the inspiration for the attack but might have also served to prepare them for it as well.  While ultimately most if not all the similarities can be summed up by saying “both were terrorist attacks in a Russian airport,” there is great cause for concern that our often sensationalist and scapegoat seeking 24hr media cycle will in fact seize upon the story like some Russian media outlets have, and manage to blow it completely out of proportion.

The question then becomes is the Russian media’s attempt to link the very real violence on Monday to MW2’s fictional story enough of a motivating factor to make the house committee view the Bacca’s video game labeling act more legitimately?  While I hope our elected representatives are smarter than that, after all, even if there was a link an 18 year old terrorist looking to video games for ideas wouldn’t be dissuaded by a label… in fact we may just end up highlighting the best examples for them, we will simply have to wait and see.

In Depth is a periodic segment on Clearance Bin Review where we discuss issues and news in the gaming world at a much greater length than the typical news post.

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