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Rating Game: You got trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with V for video toys


"The love of pleasure [among the young] will not be denied," wrote Jane Addams from Hull House nearly a century ago, "and when it has turned into all sorts of malignant and vicious appetites, then we, the middle aged, grow quite distracted and resort to all sorts of restrictive measures."

Resorting to restrictive measures has become routine in a nation whose commercial genius seems devoted to concocting ways to stimulate malignant and vicious appetites among the young. Every generation since Addams' has seen some new popular entertainment threaten to transform the nation's young into sex fiends or drug addicts or Communists or school drop-outs. In the 1920s, it was hot dancing and short skirts; in the 1930s, it was suggestive Hollywood movies; in the 1950s, it was comics and rock 'n' roll; in the 1960s, it was, well, everything. In 2000, much of a presidential campaign was devoted to demonstrating which candidates could out-damn movie studios and music companies for pushing products at children that would shock a brothel madam of a generation ago. 

At the moment, the threat to Illinois kids is nasty video games. The governor, of late, has sounded as if he might burst into song at any moment, right there on the steps of the Statehouse, à la Professor Harold Hill. "Ya got trouble my friends," Mr. Blagojevich has been saying, in effect. "With a capital 'T' and that rhymes with 'V' and that stands for video games!" 

Video games have vexed Concerned Parents for years, and as the games' sophistication and popularity have grown, so has unease about possible ill effects. No Illinois politician facing a statewide race will dare be indifferent to the suburban moms who have complained loudest, so in 2004 Blagojevich ordered into being a Safe Games Illinois Task Force to study the issue and advise him — meaning, in the time-honored fashion of such bodies, to dig up plausible reasons for the position he'd taken in favor of restricting their sales. 

The result was the Safe Games Illinois Act, proposed by the governor and approved by the Illinois General Assembly last May. The new law would have made punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 the sale to minors of "excessively violent" or "sexually explicit" video games. 

The law stirred the games industry and retailers to call their lawyers, who filed suit. 

In December, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kennelly in Chicago ruled that the facts did not demonstrate a social risk from youthful gaming sufficient to justify what would have been an infringement on freedom of speech. 

Illinois parents could again hear howling wolves creeping closer to their children's bedrooms.

In previous eras, Chicago, a city that offers more temptations to the young, led the state in campaigns to protect them. Amusement parks were a little too amusing for the Chicago Law and Order League, which in 1909 publicly denounced the White City amusement park as a bad influence on children. In order to "protect and purify" Illinois' children, the stalwarts of what became the Juvenile Protective Association shamed and bullied lawmakers into banning booze at the city's dance halls, where young women of the lower-middle and working classes met and socialized with young men away from the glaring eyes of their strict parents. In the name of children, reformers also made certain that pictures shown in the nickel cinemas were carefully censored so that — as Addams boasted — "those series suggesting obscenity and criminality have been practically eliminated." 

Jane Addams is only the most famous Illinoisan to take up the cudgel against popular culture-mongers on behalf of the young. The list of local school boards that have banned popular novels by the likes of Mark Twain, Harper Lee and Judy Blume includes several in Illinois. Efforts in the 1950s to keep Marxists out of college classrooms were pursued by people who did not understand leftist ideas to protect students they assumed could not withstand them. 

However, attempts to make Illinois safe for the young have failed many more times than they have succeeded. Laws to restrict the sale of supposedly obscene or otherwise objectionable material, for example, seldom pass constitutional muster. Nor have the civil courts been much help in disciplining what many see as irresponsible corporate conduct. Relatives of some of the 13 people killed in 1999 when two teen boys shot up Columbine High School later sought $5 billion in damages from 25 gamemakers, alleging their products turned the boys (one of whom had nicknamed a gun they used after a character in Doom) into "monster" killers. The claim was tossed out of court as unprovable. Producers and purveyors of problematic entertainments have proven more vulnerable to public shaming than to law. The Chicago Law and Order League was one of the groups that persuaded proprietors to replace peep shows and sideshows in turn-of-the-20th-century amusement parks with the mechanical thrills that remain a staple of the industry; in the same way, the dance halls condemned by the Juvenile Protective Association morphed into respectable "ballrooms." 

Of course, implicit in such campaigns is the threat of an official crackdown if they fail. The wisdom of that strategy — give in a little to the bluenoses to avoid giving in a lot to the cops — has been impressed on leaders of one branch after another of the U.S. entertainment industry. Hollywood in 1930 adopted the prudish Hays Code, which turned popular film away from sex toward suds. In the 1950s, comic book publishers set up the Comics Code Authority, whose certification was a guarantee of wholesomeness, after Dr. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocentconvinced many gullible readers —including some U.S. senators — that reading comic books caused juvenile delinquency. 

In 1985, the Parents' Music Resource Center was founded by a group of political figures' wives (the Mothers Of Prevention, as Frank Zappa memorably dubbed them) who were convinced that rock music celebrated violence and crime and encouraged suicide and drug use. It does, of course — that's why kids listen to it — but an indulgent U.S. Senate held committee hearings to explain to everyone else the dangers posed by "pornographic" rock lyrics. The specter of a federal clampdown frightened the Recording Industry Association of America into agreeing to the Parents Music Resource Center demand that warning labels be affixed on CDs containing "explicit" lyrics. 

Meanwhile, complaints about the content of video games were piling up. To head off congressional busybodies, the games industry in 1994 set up the Entertainment Software Rating Board. These content ratings — six classes from EC (Early Childhood) to AO (Adult Only) — are trustworthy enough. The problem is that compliance with their strictures by retailers is voluntary — and thus mostly ignored, save by the biggest and most image-conscious retailers. But even responsible retailers often fail as sentries. In 2005, the National Institute on Media and the Family, a respected watchdog group, undertook a secret shopper survey and found that boys as young as 9 were able to buy M-rated (for "mature") games 42 percent of the time and girls were able to purchase M-rated games 46 percent of the time.

The ultimate decision about who can buy what is made by the store clerk on the floor — as often as not, a young gamer. Some store chains must resort to incentives (what in a franker age would have been called bribes) to get their own staff to comply with the stores' own policy of respecting rating board strictures, such as giving $20 gift cards to employees who don't sell proscribed games to decoys.

The attacks on commercial pop culture come sometimes from the Offended Right, sometimes from the Worried Left, the former usually fretting that popular entertainment might corrupt their young, the latter that it might deform them. The nature of the outrage matters, too. The aging peace-and-love types tend not to be bothered by foul language and nudity, but they are troubled that so many popular games gleefully violate virtually every tenet of political correctness. Villains and victims alike in violent games are disproportionately people of color, which, though bad for whites because it reinforces cultural stereotypes, is worse for racial minorities because it offers such dubious role models. They also debase women; in Dead or Alive, marketed in the late 1990s, female characters' breasts bounced while they were fighting. Whether this marked an advance for feminism we will leave to others to argue; it certainly marked an impressive technological advance. (As a concession to taste, perhaps, or to eliminate a distraction, the thoughtful programmers made the bouncing a feature that could be turned on or off.) 

However, it is educated boomers' anxieties about the harmful effects of vicarious violence that pushed regulation of video games onto state government's to-do list. (We will ignore for the moment the vexed question of whether playing violent video games makes one a violent person. In political terms, it matters only that lots of people think it does.) As parents, the aging Woodstockians have made violence in child entertainment an issue since the days of GI Joe dolls, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers and professional wrestling. 

The mayhem and gore that features in most of the most popular games makes those diversions look like, well, kids' stuff. The first controversial arcade game back in the '70s was titled Death Race; the games that have followed — State of Emergency, Splatterhouse, Grand Theft Auto, Street Fighter, Evil Dead, Thrill Kill, Mortal Kombat and hundreds of others — contain ever more violence that is rendered ever more realistically. Columbine gave new urgency to calls for action from middle-class parents terrified that their Devon or Killian will be turned into a killer. 

The critique of violent video games is a new article in the social left's long-standing indictment of violence in American culture. A nation that, as measured by crime, TV fare or military spending, is the most violent in the developed world is a nation in which video games are not the most dangerous threat to the young. Nasty video games don't create a culture that celebrates violence, they are artifacts of it. Sony in 2003 tried to register "shock and awe" as a trademark for its Playstation division a few days after the phrase was unveiled as the Pentagon's code name for its upcoming assault on Baghdad. After a barrage — sorry — of complaints, the company called the move "regrettable bad judgment" and withdrew the application. The spectacle of Sony attempting to turn into a game a real-life invasion that was being marketed as if it were a video game left many observers feeling as though they were in a house of mirrors. 

Protecting the young is not made easier when virtual violence is being peddled by one's own government. America's Army, which the BBC described as a typical first-person shooter game, a "shoot-em-up, get-the-bad guys kind of affair," today has more than 5 million registered players. It was produced by the U.S. Army, which released the game for free in 2002 as a recruiting come-on. It is hard to see how a war game cannot be excessively violent, as defined by the now-kaput Illinois statute. That left Springfield attempting, through the Safe Games Illinois Act, to prevent youths of 17 years and 11 months from pretending to do what, as 18-year-old enlistees, Washington will pay them to do for real one month later. 

"Life is a video game, old chum," sing the brass at the Pentagon. U.S. troops increasingly are trained using video games, partly because using video games to train people how to kill is cheaper, and less risky, and partly because most recruits find the technology congenial. What effect this may be having on troops in the field may be inferred from the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later manner in which U.S. troops make forays into hostile territory in Iraq. This mimics precisely many of the video games that gave so many young troops their first experience of a finger on a trigger. Thus does life imitate art imitating life. 

Some of these ultra-realistic combat training games are making their way into commercial products. Full Spectrum Warrior is a squad-based, real-time tactical combat game that allows players to "experience the intensity and gritty realism of urban warfare." Players posing as squad leaders get to take command and coordinate the actions of two infantry squads, leading them through a hostile urban war zone — read Baghdad — using equipment based on real-world weaponry. Full Spectrum Warrior is based on a light infantry training simulator developed by the U.S. Army-funded Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California. 

Diane Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, authors of The War Play Dilemma: What Every Parent and Teacher Needs to Know, have complained that a violent game "conveys the messages that hurting other people is acceptable, even exciting, and that violence is the method of choice for resolving conflicts." But the message that hurting other people is acceptable, even exciting, and that violence is the method of choice for resolving conflicts is one that Washington has been eager to convey to America and the world. The impression that our military regards war as a game was confirmed a year ago when a three-star Marine general just back from Afghanistan and Iraq said in a speech that it is "a hell of a hoot" and "fun to shoot some people." It is hard to say whom we ought to worry about more: our generals sounding like 13-year-olds, or our 13-year-olds sounding like generals. 

If government seems confused, and industry indifferent, what is an outraged citizen to do? The governor has proposed something like vigilantism; after Judge Kennelly's ruling, Blagojevich urged a grass-roots effort to stigmatize merchants who fail to police themselves. Stigmatization has its appeal — we could start with politicians who take simplistic positions on complex issues — but are lax merchants the only villains? What about the parents who fail to police their own children? If parents did their jobs, after all, the government wouldn't have to. The gradual incorporation of parental controls on the game console that make it possible to prevent access to adult-rated games and limit playing time, as Microsoft and Nintendo have done on their new models, could eventually render moot the issue of restrictions at point of sale. But as the little-used V-chips in TV sets have illustrated, such controls are useless without an informed and committed parent to use them. 

In Jane Addams' day, thousands of city kids also had been abandoned, in effect, to the seductions of commercialized entertainments. Their mostly immigrant parents were either working or, when they were home, exhausted; in any event, the mostly peasant newcomers around Hull House knew little of the dangers of the urban street. 

The situation is not much changed in Illinois' two-income and single-parent families today. This the governor acknowledged in his executive order setting up the gaming task force. "A working family may not have the time and technological sophistication to monitor each and every game its children play," it read. 

Is it unreasonable to expect that parents act as their own Juvenile Protective Association within their own homes? Writing in a day when women were held exclusively responsible for childrearing, Jane Addams warned in 1915, "As society grows more complicated, it is necessary that woman shall extend her sense of responsibility to many things outside of her own home if she would continue to preserve the home in its entirety." A mother — or, today, father — trying conscientiously to rear children will, she added, "have to have some conscience in regard to public affairs lying quite outside of her immediate household." But dangerous things outside the home have moved inside through television, the Internet and video games and have become private health problems. 

In his post-ruling press statement, the governor, referring to research suggesting that kids easily get hold of mature video games, insisted, "parents should know that retailers are selling these games to their kids." It takes no state law for parents to go into their kids' rooms to learn which games they are playing. That so few apparently do, that so many rely on surveys and governors to tell them what their own kids are doing in their free time, suggests that the crisis in Illinois childrearing is not caused by makers of video games. 


James Krohe Jr., a veteran commentator on Illinois public issues, is writing a guide to the state's history for the Illinois Humanities Council. He is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

llinois Issues, February 2006

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