EW’s pop-culture columnist peels away the hypocrisy a Massachusetts proposal to ban sales of violent games to minors, another attempt by politicians to act as surrogate parents that he says is not only doomed to fail, but is undemocratic to boot
I’m no fan of videogames; pretty much gave them up in the late ’70s or early ’80s, when my kids used to beat me regularly at Pitfall! (hell, they used to beat me at Pong, and back then our youngest wasn’t yet eligible for T-ball, let alone Little League). Sure, I’ve occasionally plugged quarters into one of the machines in the lobby of my local cineplex and shot at some bad guys, but I always miss the high-value targets and can never remember how to reload. As for amassing enough points to get bonus time? Forget about it. If I arrive early for the show, I’m much more apt to stick my money in the nonviolent machine that’s full of stuffed toys. You probably know the one I’m talking about; you get 30 seconds to maneuver the claw, then drop it. I won a stuffed dog on one occasion doing that. Another time I won a rubber frog. When you squeezed it, the frog made a ribbit-ribbit sound and stuck out its tongue, which I enjoyed (your uncle Stevie is easily amused, he admits).
So, nope — videogames are not my thing. Nor am I some kind of raving political nutcase. But when I heard about HB 1423, which happens to be a bill pending in the Massachusetts state legislature, I still hit the roof. HB 1423 would restrict or outright ban the sale of violent videogames to anyone under the age of 18. Which means, by the way, that a 17-year-old who can get in to see Hostel: Part II would be forbidden by law from buying (or renting, one supposes) the violent but less graphic Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
According to the proposed bill, violent videogames are pornographic and have no redeeming social merit. The vid-critics claim they exist for one reason and one reason only, so kids can experience the vicarious thrill of killing. Now, what does and doesn’t have social merit is always an interesting question, one I can discuss for hours. But what makes me crazy is when politicians take it upon themselves to play surrogate parents. The results of that are usually disastrous. Not to mention undemocratic.
One of HB 1423’s cosponsors is Rep. Christine E. Canavan, of Brockton. ”I think this legislation is a good idea,” she told the Boston Herald. ”I don’t want this constant barrage of violence on young minds and for them to think it is all right.” It’s a good point…except that it seems to me that the games only reflect a violence that already exists in the society.
Nor will I argue for the artistic value of stuff like God of War, or 50 Cent: Bulletproof, where looting the victims of gang violence is part of the game (players use the money to buy new Fiddy tunes and music videos — classy). I do, however, want to point out that videogames, like movies, have a ratings system, and ones with the big M or A on the box mean ”Not for you, baby brother.”
And if there’s violence to be had, the kids are gonna find a way to get it, just as they’ll find a way to get all-day shooters like No Country for Old Men from cable if they want. Or Girls Gone Wild, for that matter. Can parents block that stuff? You bet. But most never do. The most effective bar against what was called ”the seduction of the innocent” when this hot-button issue centered on violent comic books 60 years ago is still parents who know and care not just about what their kids are watching and reading, but what they’re doing and who they’re hanging with. Parents need to have the guts to forbid material they find objectionable…and then explain why it’s being forbidden. They also need to monitor their children’s lives in the pop culture — which means a lot more than seeing what games they’re renting down the street.
If HB 1423 becomes law, will it remain law? Doubtful. Similar legislation has been declared unconstitutional in several states. Could Massachusetts legislators find better ways to watch out for the kiddies? Man, I sure hope so, because there’s a lot more to America’s culture of violence than Resident Evil 4.
What really makes me insane is how eager politicians are to use the pop culture — not just videogames but TV, movies, even Harry Potter — as a whipping boy. It’s easy for them, even sort of fun, because the pop-cult always hollers nice and loud. Also, it allows legislators to ignore the elephants in the living room. Elephant One is the ever-deepening divide between the haves and have-nots in this country, a situation guys like Fiddy and Snoop have been indirectly rapping about for years. Elephant Two is America’s almost pathological love of guns. It was too easy for critics to claim — falsely, it turned out — that Cho Seung-Hui (the Virginia Tech killer) was a fan of Counter-Strike; I just wish to God that legislators were as eager to point out that this nutball had no problem obtaining a 9mm semiautomatic handgun. Cho used it in a rampage that resulted in the murder of 32 people. If he’d been stuck with nothing but a plastic videogame gun, he wouldn’t even have been able to kill himself.