For the social conservatives who are the self-appointed watchdogs of American culture, video games have supplanted rock and roll music as the great corruptor of the youth. Bill Haley and Ozzy Osbourne, breathe easy; Tommy Vercetti and the Doom Marine, look out. The State of Illinois is about to enact a law that has the potential to turn the gaming industry on its head.
House Bill 4023 is about to become law in Illinois, essentially adding teeth to the tiger that the video game industry itself created with the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). While the ESRB recommends that games rated Ã¢â‚¬Å“Mature: 17+Ã¢â‚¬? not be sold to minors, the new law would make such a sale a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000.
In the eleven years of the ESRBÃ¢â‚¬™s existence, Doom became the fall guy for the Columbine High School shootings, Microsoft Flight Simulator was nearly banned for its supposed utility as a terrorist training tool, and the Grand Theft Auto series has been blamed for everything from the weak dollar to outbreaks of mad cow disease. A new breed of social conservatives has emerged, spearheaded by ConnecticutÃ¢â‚¬™s junior senator and erstwhile Vice-Presidential candidate, Joseph Lieberman. The ever-opportunistic mainstream media will lend credence to any 8-year-oldÃ¢â‚¬™s claim that Grand Theft Auto inspired (nay, commanded!) him to take grandmaÃ¢â‚¬™s Grand Marquis for a joyride. It is in this atmosphere that HB4023 has been passed by both houses of the Illinois State Legislature and now moves to Governor Rod BlagojevichÃ¢â‚¬™s desk for approval. That passage is a forgone conclusion, as the bill was drafted at BlagojevichÃ¢â‚¬™s behest in December.
That video games are controversial is far from breaking news. Like any other medium that appeals to rebellious American youths, video games have been criticized for their allegedly malevolent influence. Criticism of video games in the 1970s and 80s had existed as an amusing diversion for years, never ascending to the point of high theatre that Tipper GoreÃ¢â‚¬™s battle against obscene music had. Then came Night Trap, an absurd full-motion video game for the short-lived Sega CD. Night TrapÃ¢â‚¬™s mild violence and obtusely alluded-to sexuality were tame by any sane personÃ¢â‚¬™s standards. Suffice to say that any episode of Bugs Bunny where the title character cross-dresses to tempt a nemesis to distraction would raise more awkward questions from a child than even the raciest bits in Night Trap. Regardless of this, 1992 was an election year, and video games were tied to the whipping post. Sensing blood in the water, the media jumped right on board.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Corruptors of the youthÃ¢â‚¬? have always had one last resort: self-regulation. Faced with government authorities threatening action against them, corruptors throughout history have moved to assuage the fears of the social conservatives: the comic book industry in 1954 produced the Comics Code, the film industry in 1968 with the MPAA, and Socrates (less successfully) in 399 B.C.E. with his Apology. Video gaming responded in 1994 with the ESRB, a similarly voluntary rating system where game makers submit their product to be focus-grouped and assigned a rating. Game retailers, too, wanted to protect their image, and the largest chains self-imposed bans on sales of ESRB Ã¢â‚¬Å“MatureÃ¢â‚¬? rated games to minors.
Gamers of every age and stripe have ample reason to fear IllinoisÃ¢â‚¬™ new legislation. For better or for worse, children are the crucial segment of the video game market in the eyes of the industry. Games that are ostensibly for adults are sold in great numbers to teenagers and younger adolescents. Ask a random sampling of 13-year-old boys in the mall if they own Grand Theft Auto. Couple that fact with the reality of the video game industryÃ¢â‚¬™s rapid conglomerization, and you have a recipe for trouble.
Consider the state of popular film-making. By releasing an R-rated film, a movie studio is cutting off a significant portion of its potential ticket sales. For the last several years, the number of R-rated films released has decreased dramatically. If video game companies perceive that making harder-to-acquire mature games will cut into their bottom line, then the government wonÃ¢â‚¬™t need a Tipper Gore to censor games; the game companies will do it themselves. The game makers are no longer a motley band of privately-funded upstarts; increasingly they are publicly-traded corporations with shareholders to answer to. Taking risks with games that cannot be legally purchased by what they view as their target market will become less and less attractive.
Clearly adults are a significant portion of the market for video games. How seriously this is taken by the industry is another matter entirely. Note that MicrosoftÃ¢â‚¬™s unveiling of their new Xbox 360 console came on MTV; anyone who saw that program knows full well which demographic they were appealing to there (hint: itÃ¢â‚¬™s not comprised of anyone who possesses a driverÃ¢â‚¬™s license or shaves regularly). Large corporations, focused as they on the next quarter are rarely blessed mith much foresight. They will alienate adult gamers by attempting to cater exclusively to the 17-and-under demographic if more laws like Illinois' pop up around the country.
When Rod Blagojevich takes up a fountain pen and John Hanc*cks IllinoisÃ¢â‚¬™ new video game law into reality this week, sit up and take note. It may well be the beginning of the end of the age of big-budget adult-oriented games.