What's behind the video game witch hunt?

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh explains who's driving the campaign against politically incorrect video games--and why.

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
4 min read
Self-appointed morality mavens are mounting a concerted, state-by-state campaign targeting politically incorrect video games.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, is expected to sign a bill this month that will make his state the only one in the republic to ban the sale of violent video games to minors.

"I commend the Illinois General Assembly for recognizing the importance and necessity of this bill, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to sign it into law," Blagojevich said in a press release. A suitably outraged Blagojevich spokeswoman went so far as to label games like "Grand Theft Auto" as "practically pornography."

Illinois is hardly alone. California's Assembly has shelved a similar bill for now, though supporters of the scheme are still contemplating a last-minute push in the state Senate. And a North Carolina bill would ban computer games (think Solitaire) from government-owned PCs.

America's anti-video game forces may be prejudiced, but they're not dumb.
"In most cases these bills have been introduced by Democrats," Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, told me on Friday. "They've come from people who have aspirations for national office. They come from people who are interpreting the 2004 election as a values election and the Democrats lost on values. One way to recapture values is to attack violent entertainment, especially video games. It's a cold, calculating political effort."

So far, courts have shot down the most intrusive of these misbegotten laws.

Probably the most influential opinion was written by libertarian-leaning judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which zapped an Indianapolis law restricting minors' access to arcade games that might appeal to a "morbid" interest in violence.

"The common sense reaction to the Indianapolis ordinance could be overcome by social scientific evidence, but has not been," Posner wrote in 2001. "The ordinance curtails freedom of expression significantly and, on this record, without any offsetting justification."

Since then, two other courts have struck down related anti-gaming laws by adopting similar logic: Unless social science research can prove the games are actually harmful, the First Amendment's freedom of expression wins.

Missouri's St. Louis County had enacted a law prohibiting anyone from selling, renting or making available "graphically violent" video games to minors without a parent's or guardian's consent. But the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "before the county may constitutionally restrict the speech at issue here, the county must come forward with empirical support for its belief that 'violent' video games cause psychological harm to minors."

Last year, a federal district judge in Washington state tossed out a law penalizing the distribution of games to minors in which harm may come to a "public law enforcement officer." The "state of the research" does not justify the ban, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik ruled.

Even beyond the legal concerns, the problems with regulations of video games are obvious and manifold. Raising a child must remain a parent's responsibility, not that of some government bureaucrat. Shielding a 6-year-old from violence is one thing, but shielding a 16-year-old (who can vote in two years) is quite another. Besides, how will prohibitions on availability to minors apply to open-source software on Web sites?

The counterattack
America's anti-video game forces may be prejudiced, but they're not dumb. They've learned their lessons from the courts--and are now scouring the ranks of social science researchers to find some study they can wield to justify restrictions.

Blagojevich, the Illinois Democrat, claims that more recent social science research will let the state defend its restrictions in court. His Web site points to a recent study conducted by an Iowa State University psychologist. It argues that "exposure to violent video games is significantly linked to increases in aggressive behavior."

Even beyond the legal concerns, the problems with regulations of video games are obvious and manifold.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, that weathervane of modern Democratic Party politics, complained about video games in March: "Probably one of the biggest complaints I've heard is about some of the video games, particularly 'Grand Theft Auto,' which has so many demeaning messages about women and so encourages violent imagination and activities and it scares parents."

Clinton may be a relatively new senator, but she has mastered an important Washington lesson: You get what you pay for. Social science researchers receiving fat paychecks from politicos with agendas have a strong incentive to shape their results accordingly.

It's no surprise, then, that Clinton and other like-minded senators (Democrat Joe Lieberman, Republican Rick Santorum) are behind a bill to spend $90 million in tax dollars on a study looking at the "impact" of video games and other "electronic media" on minors.

Clinton is savvy enough not to call for outright video game regulation at the moment. But after a horrific tragedy happens--perhaps another Columbine--that can be linked to video games, she and her allies can convene a triumphal press conference, demand Draconian restrictions, and seem unusually farsighted.

If the junior senator from New York is especially lucky, that'll be just in time for the 2008 presidential election.