Games the video police play can't be won
By James Alan Fox
Monday, December 19, 2005  

 Maybe my perspective is distorted by painful memories from grade school. But it surely seems that any time some advocacy or industry watchdog group publishes a report card, the assessment is full of D's and F's. Anything better, after all, would tend to threaten the organization's raison d'etre.

So is it any surprise that the 10th annual MediaWise Video Game Report Card, released by the National Institute on Media and the Family - just in time for the holiday shopping season - gave the gaming industry a big fat D+? The "Parent Alert" portion of the report also listed the 10 worst, most violent games on the market, hoping to help parents steer clear of Grand Theft Auto and similarly brutal titles for their last-minute stocking stuffers.

Though well-meaning, of course, the list also alerts young gamers to the definitely cool, "bad ass" games - the ones they really must have or they'll absolutely die, especially if the kid down the block gets it first. In virtually all arenas of entertainment and fashion, those items that are prohibited tend to be the hottest sellers. (Notice what has happened to Internet sales of the Stop Snitchin' T-shirts after Mayor Tom Menino attempted to ban them from Boston retailers.)

Speaking as a veteran of the parental wars over entertainment choices - usually on the losing side - there is not much that parents can do to win. Video games, if not personally owned by youngsters, can be swapped among friends, or else played at other people's houses out of the line of sight of their own diligent parents.

And for parents, video games do present a special kind of problem. Compared to passive and non-interactive violence portrayed in television and film, games are active forms of simulated aggression and from a first-person point of view. Rather than just controlling an animated Mario, the latest Xbox 360 places the gamer right in the middle of the battlefield or in the line of fire. In addition, success in killing is rewarded by the accumulation of points or advancement to new levels of play.

Are we to be encouraged by congressional intervention in this troubling state of affairs? On the same day that the gaming report card was released, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman jointly announced that after the holiday recess they would introduce the Family Entertainment Protection Act. This bill would supposedly improve the ratings system to reflect better the actual content (no more hidden sexualized extras cleverly uncovered with special codes). It would also prohibit sales of mature games to minors, providing penalties for retailers that ignore the ratings.

When will they learn? Ratings don't work. The more mature the rating, the greater the demand. It's the media version of the forbidden fruit. Moreover, restrictions on sales to minors, even if enforced, will likely function as poorly as do the prohibitions on smoking and drinking.

What is worse, as a parent, you'll never know if your kid has been shooting up the bad guys at a nearby video-game party. Unlike drinking or smoking, you won't smell gaming on your son's breath or on your daughter's clothes.

I can only imagine what will happen if the pornographic gaming folks (there are consoles that even include attachments for synchronized, sexual stimulation) ever team up with the violent game programmers. Is the next frontier to be virtual rape? Hopefully by then, the industry will show self-restraint rather than leaving it all up to parents to be the media police.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at