How Illinois’ New Law Could Change The Game

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 “Mature: 17+� 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 ESRB’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 Connecticut’s junior senator and erstwhile Vice-Presidential candidate, Joseph Lieberman. The ever-opportunistic mainstream media will lend credence to any 8-year-old’s claim that Grand Theft Auto inspired (nay, commanded!) him to take grandma’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 Blagojevich’s desk for approval. That passage is a forgone conclusion, as the bill was drafted at Blagojevich’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 Gore’s battle against obscene music had. Then came Night Trap, an absurd full-motion video game for the short-lived Sega CD. Night Trap’s mild violence and obtusely alluded-to sexuality were tame by any sane person’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.

“Corruptors of the youth� 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 “Mature� rated games to minors.

Gamers of every age and stripe have ample reason to fear Illinois’ 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 industry’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 won’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 Microsoft’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: it’s not comprised of anyone who possesses a driver’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 Illinois’ 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.

Comments

Old news to me, GameCrazy, Wallmart, Target, Kmart, EB, GameStop, Best Buy, and Circuit City stoped selling M rated games to minors years ago, they card you now adays.

Giants: Citizen Kabuto

*High fives Podunk for remember such a great game*

Azure Chicken wrote:

Podunk:
I won't argue whether or not those games are fun, because a great many of them are.
But creative? Hardly. You run around and you hit stuff. Newer, bigger guns and better ways of hitting stuff != creativity.

Interesting is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

I don't know. I look at that list and I think you're stretching if all you see is different ways to hit things.

Since conflict is necessary for most stories, particularly interactive ones, you've basically described about 99% of the video game market as being "running around and hitting things". I think saying you're oversimplifying is an understatement.

The article wrote:

Game retailers, too, wanted to protect their image, and the largest chains self-imposed bans on sales of ESRB “Mature� rated games to minors.

Alexander wrote:

Old news to me, GameCrazy, Wallmart, Target, Kmart, EB, GameStop, Best Buy, and Circuit City stoped selling M rated games to minors years ago, they card you now adays.

Skimmer.

Azure Chicken wrote:

I won't argue whether or not those games are fun, because a great many of them are. But creative? Hardly. You run around and you hit stuff. Newer, bigger guns and better ways of hitting stuff != creativity.

Interesting is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

Hmmm. Well in that case, I guess I'd argue that creativity is as well. You wouldn't consider Jade Empire to be creative? Or the fusion of FPS and fighting game of Unreal Championship 2? The playground gameplay of the GTA series? The brilliant multiplayer mode of Halo 2? The quasi-music sound design of Doom 3?

In Psychonauts you run around and hit stuff. In Katamari Damacy you roll around and hit stuff. By dismissing all games based on that mechanic you've pretty much ruled out everything that isn't an adventure game or Sim-something as uncreative.

Way I see it, the law would essentially eliminate a lot of the lawsuits parents file on violent video games.

If a kid can't get ahold of a violent game without his parents buying it for him, guess what? Parents can't do much if the kid decides to shoot someone. Because they were the chief enablers of that "corruption."

Because, if you choose, and you don't mind your child playing GTA3 or whatever mature game - great, run over to walmart with him and pick it up...and you'll get some good bonding time doing it...but if not, it sure helps as one 'small' measure to assist overburdened parents.

Bingo.

Should we do away with laws that prevent the sale of pornographic magazines to minors? Alcohol? Tobacco? Guns?
Parents can still go get playboy, shiner, skoal, and a nice little .410 for Johnny if they want, but Johnny isn't likely to be able to waltz into a (wet) Wal-mart and pick up his own hunting trip.

And I really don't see how this law would abridge anyone's rights.

duckilama wrote:

Should we do away with laws that prevent the sale of pornographic magazines to minors? Alcohol? Tobacco? Guns?

See, I don't think the comparison to Cigars and Guns is at all fair. Instead, why not compare it to laws preventing the sale of movies and books? Why not make it illegal for children to read Steven King? In fact, if a library lets a child borrow such a book, why not fine it $5000!?

As far as I know, there are no such laws on the books. Video games are being singled out, because they're an easy target for groups.

My problem with the argument against vendors is simply that I've never seen a large vendor sell minors M rated games. Ever. You'll lose your job if you do it in a GameStop or EB. Parents are buying GTA for their kids.

Podunk wrote:

...Fallout...

Azure Chicken wrote:

But creative? Hardly.

Geez, why not rip my heart out with a rusty knife.

Lobo wrote:

The difference, trip1eX -- and it is huge -- is that the filmmakers and movie theaters are not subject to a law restricting the content available to minors. The MPAA gets to decide for itself what counts as R and what counts as PG-13, and theater owners get to decide for themselves whether or not to abide by MPAA rules. Most do, but some independent theaters do not.

Games are hampered by a stigma, as though they were somehow a more dangerous or infectious media than film. Thus, we have to endure efforts at legislation such as this. As Sanjuro persuasively argues, it amounts to an unconstitutional restriction of trade by the government on private industry, since it would render most attempts at mature, provocative subject matter economically stillborn. That is why every similar effort at legislation of games has been struck down; it is why we should hope for a similar outcome in this case.

WEll if game content is judged like the movies then I see the desire of game companies to want a 'PG-13' rating as only increasing. Law or no law.

It happens now in the movie industry without a law as you said. YOu want to sell the most tickets? Then you make a movie that is accessible to the biggest audience. I think the economics transcend law. And so it is pretty much inevitable.

Also just what kind of provocative videogame content are we going to miss out on? Heads blowing up? Blood? STuff blowing up is what sells vid games I think. Whether that be cars, buildings, people, etc. And blowing up can mean getting shot or crashing or hit by a car or punched. So that must be what you're gonna miss out on.

Somehow I don't think games will stop being made like this especially if there's a large target audience over 17. And actually as it is now most games aren't rated 'M.'

DrunkenSleipnir wrote:

Geez, why not rip my heart out with a rusty knife.

Fallout is a brilliant game, easily on my top-5 of all-time classics.
But creative? You run around and shoot sh*t. It's basically Wasteland with prettier graphics.

Remember the olden days when new genres were born every other week? When there were no sales quotas and people experimented all the damn time?

THAT was creativity. Doom was creative because it had NEVER been done before. SimCity. The Sims. EverQuest. The original MUDs. Point-and-drool adventure gaming. Hell, Spore looks creative, it's something new and different.

The Mature ideal of the here and now means creativity is how much blood we can throw and how many big guns we can shove on screen, or how big of an environment we can put bad guys in to kill. Minor improvements, but it's still the exact.
same.
game.
over.
and.
over.

Azure Chicken wrote:

Fallout is a brilliant game, easily on my top-5 of all-time classics.
But creative? You run around and shoot sh*t. It's basically Wasteland with prettier graphics.

If your bar for what is or is not creative is set that high, then by your logic there hasn't been an original story since The Odyssey and there hasn't been a unique movie since Citizen Kane.

For exceptionally creative games with excellent stories that were M-rated, look no further than Chronicles of Riddick and Second Sight. If Doom were released today, it would be an M-rated game. Certainly there's plenty of M-rated games that bring nothing new to the table, but there's unoriginal games released every week in every rating category.

Saying Fallout is not creative or innovative is like saying The Exorcist wasn't scary.

I mean, c'mon. "Run around and shoot sh*t?" The combat is a small portion of the game.

In reference to innovation and creativity in gaming, there were some brilliant threads a while back, summing up into a great front page article by Elysium. Here it is, and well worth a read if you missed it.

Sanjuro said it very well just now:

Sanjuro wrote:

Certainly there's plenty of M-rated games that bring nothing new to the table, but there's unoriginal games released every week in every rating category.

Spiro the Dragon was an E game, yet it was as uninventive as any one of the million WWII shooters out not. I think a game rating has no correlation to level of innovation. You see both beautiful creativity and staggering rehashing across the field of ratings.

As much as everyone, and perhaps more then some, I don't want to see countess ideas resold to me over and over. But as for the argument that less M games would somehow improve, I don't buy it.

trip1eX wrote:

Also just what kind of provocative videogame content are we going to miss out on? Heads blowing up? Blood? STuff blowing up is what sells vid games I think. Whether that be cars, buildings, people, etc. And blowing up can mean getting shot or crashing or hit by a car or punched. So that must be what you're gonna miss out on.

Come now, you can't really believe that's fair. I am surprised that there is some sort of assumption that the only time a game garners an M rating is when there is unnecessary gore. If I'm playing Fatal Frame (one of the best games in it's genre, if you ask me) then I won't feel very immersed if I see a ghost sitting peacefully handing me a bouquet of flowers. Not all blood is connected with adolescent gore-kicks.

edited for some poor spelling

Come now, you can't really believe that's fair. I am surprised that there is some sort of assumption that the only time a game garners an M rating is when there is unnecessary gore. If I'm playing Fatal Frame (one of the best games in it's genre, if you ask me) then I won't feel very immersed if I see a ghost sitting piecefull handing me a bouqet of flowers. Not all blood is connected with adolescent gore-kicks.

True. Fallout 1&2 were brilliantly crafted games that were rated M. When in the right context gore, blood, swearing, and nudity can add realism instead of just being there because of shock value or whatever else it's supposed to provide.

Edit: Around where I live they have been carding kids for quite some time. But it really depends on who's selling the game, then again I live in Canada so this has no effect on me.

Podunk wrote:

I know they're just covering their bases, but what do you figure the odds are of turgid wieners showing up in video games any time in the near future?

Hopefully slim to none...

I just can't get that worked up about this bill. Not that I plan on keeping my son from playing most of the games I have, even the M's- I figure since I also game, that's an opportunity for intelligent conversation about the issues. But I just don't see this as the radical sea change that is going to force the changing of every M game to T- Max Payne, for instance, would have been almost impossible to make as a T, and I don't think it was going to get shelved as a result. It's too obvious that there is adult demand for games for them all to get dumbed down, IMO.

DrunkenSleipnir wrote:

Come now, you can't really believe that's fair. I am surprised that there is some sort of assumption that the only time a game garners an M rating is when there is unnecessary gore. If I'm playing Fatal Frame (one of the best games in it's genre, if you ask me) then I won't feel very immersed if I see a ghost sitting piecefull handing me a bouqet of flowers. Not all blood is connected with adolescent gore-kicks.

REally? So most games aren't rated M cause of excessive blood, gore and violence then?!?? News to me.

I'm sure the law will be struck down fairly quickly, because the language (IMH-nonlegal opinion) is such that I don't think it will stand up to Constitutional muster.

That said, aren't there age restrictions on music sales? Or was that just some weird idea floated by the Tipper's Troupers?

Civil libertarian though I like to consider myself, and great advocate of parental responsibility, I don't have an issue with enforcing age restrictions on certain items, up to a certain point. Those items can be media such as games, or items such as guns and cars and booze and smokes.

I'm less tolerant of restrictions on things like media...because really, it's pretty hard to kill yourself or anyone else with a movie or a game. (Ya know, whereas a boozed up, nicotine laden, car driving 12 year old is a pretty spooky concept.)

But I do think that some games and movies are inappropriate for a younger audience, especially, IMHO games. Games have a tendency to draw deeper patterns in our minds than do movies. There's more exposure, that exposer is feedback looped and positively reinforced...games are very much a training tool to a developing brain. As such, we as a culture owe it to children to provide a chance to not have their brains commercially polluted by memes of violence and mayhem.

That there will be parents who don't see anything wrong with games like GTA for their tween isn't terribly surprising. Sad, but not surprising. But an enforced age restriction isn't going to impact those sales, all it will do is stop a kid from being able to spend his birthday money from Nanna on a game his mother would take away if she knew he had it.

By the same token, I'm not terribly comfortable making retail guys into defacto enforcement agents. And I don't know what sort of penalties (if any) would be rational and reasonable and still withstand Constitutional tests.

Draco wrote:

In stumping for this law, Governor Rod went around to suburban towns and had "town meetings" where he showed highly edited footage of games like GTA, and kids "reactions" to the game, to rooms full of ignorant mothers. It was a joke. But the moms ate it up.

Ah, G-Rod. Too bad he's not getting re-elected. I'll miss him.

duckideva wrote:

That there will be parents who don't see anything wrong with games like GTA for their tween isn't terribly surprising. Sad, but not surprising. But an enforced age restriction isn't going to impact those sales, all it will do is stop a kid from being able to spend his birthday money from Nanna on a game his mother would take away if she knew he had it.

By the same token, I'm not terribly comfortable making retail guys into defacto enforcement agents. And I don't know what sort of penalties (if any) would be rational and reasonable and still withstand Constitutional tests.

The retail guys are still in the best position to enforce age restricitions. Plus, it could be argued that, by sharing in the profits from selling the game, they share in the moral reponsibility associated with making sure it doesn't end up in the wrong hands.

Putting responsibility on the parents alone will never work. Any teenager worth their salt will have at least a short period where he or she will do anything in their power to circumvent any and all parental edicts. While they will almost always find ways, it doesn't have to be made too easy.

There shouldn't be laws against this. They should simply apply pressure to Wal-Mart to stop selling M rated games. Perfectly legal, consitutional, etc. and it would kill M rated games.

trip1eX wrote:

REally? So most games aren't rated M cause of excessive blood, gore and violence then?!?? News to me.

Emphasis added by me. I think Podunk's list shows the flaw in that statement, although I suppose excessive could certainly be taken in an extremely subjective context.

farley3k wrote:

There shouldn't be laws against this. They should simply apply pressure to Wal-Mart to stop selling M rated games. Perfectly legal, consitutional, etc. and it would kill M rated games.

See, this is the attitude I don't understand. It's one thing to want your 8yr old not to play an M game, but why eliminate adult games from market?

Fallout is a brilliant game, easily on my top-5 of all-time classics.
But creative? You run around and shoot sh*t. It's basically Wasteland with prettier graphics.

Remember the olden days when new genres were born every other week? When there were no sales quotas and people experimented all the damn time?

THAT was creativity. Doom was creative because it had NEVER been done before. SimCity. The Sims. EverQuest. The original MUDs. Point-and-drool adventure gaming. Hell, Spore looks creative, it's something new and different.

By your definition then there were like 7 creative games...ever.

And also...it wouldnt be possible to have then created new genres every other week...

it would have taken approx 2 months and then the industry would be devoid of creativness.

Its not that simple.

Laws like this are not advancing anything in a positive direction.

On the contrary - I'd say reading the two pages of discussion above, in reference to this law, is positive in the insightful and informed comments and debate we are in. This type of discussion serves to help us all find more common ground, and hopefully, our insight and brilliant opinions will spread like dandelions in the wind before the world populace, ensuring a more open, free, creative and harmonious parenting experience in this universe we call home!

Azure Chicken wrote:

Remember the olden days when new genres were born every other week? When there were no sales quotas and people experimented all the damn time?

TheGameguru wrote:

By your definition then there were like 7 creative games...ever.

And also...it wouldnt be possible to have then created new genres every other week...

it would have taken approx 2 months and then the industry would be devoid of creativness.

Its not that simple.

Aren't there 7 basic film plots? You know - guy meets girl, falls in love, overcomes some obstacles, gets girl, the end; or loner guy has family/friend/dog killed by baddie, meets girl, blows the seven hells out of bad guy, gets girl, the end.

The days of heady experimentation were possible because a small group of individuals had the ability to try out new ideas and compete in a market with little more investment than a couple of PCs and a few months of time. That is very hard to pull off in today's market where you're competing against established formulas with million-dollar budgets.

That is not to say there is no room for improvement even in the established formulas. Fallout, Torment, BG, Grim Fandango, The Longest Journey, Deus Ex, Max Payne, were all examples of games which were not innovative in concept, however they were innovative in the aspiration of designers to develop characters beyond stereotype, thus transcending the caveman norm and greatly adding to the stories told.

People have different approaches to the gaming medium. For me personally, gaming is fundamentally another way of accessing stories, akin to books or film, only with a much higher immersion level. If the story falls flat, well, there's nothing to immerse myself into, and the game becomes an empty shell (no matter how pretty the shell). Unfortunately, I seem to be in the minority, and the general trend seems to be to enhance packaging. When marketing takes control, sex and violence sells.