Parents Need Help

Restricting access to video games

A century ago, Jane Addams and other progressive reformers in Chicago responded to the dangers of the industrial age by creating laws and institutions that would protect children from the unwholesome lures of the city streets. Her work is rightly honored. A similar, and equally important, struggle is being waged in Illinois today. On the surface, it’s about the sale of video games to kids. It’s also a debate about a deeper question: To what degree does the responsibility for teaching good values to children fall solely on parents? Should some of that responsibility be shared by the state?

Those who make and sell video games say parents alone should bear the responsibility. On the other side is Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. He’s trying to outlaw the sale of excessively violent or sexually explicit video games to children under eighteen. In his effort to restrict such sales he’s making the argument that raising children is a shared responsibility: “Parenting is hard work and the state has a compelling interest in helping parents raise their children to be upstanding men and women.”

The governor firmly believes that parents have the primary responsibility for teaching their children right from wrong. He believes just as firmly that parents should not have their efforts subverted by the avalanche of “amusements” that tell kids it is fun to blow people up. “Too many of the video games marketed to our children teach them all of the wrong lessons and all of the wrong values,” Blagojevich writes in a “letter to Illinois parents” posted on the state’s informational Web site (www.safegamesIllinois.com). “These games use violence, rage, and sexual aggression as play. That is not acceptable. When kids play, they should play like children, not like gangland assassins.”

The governor’s reference to gangland assassins is not an overstatement. One video game, the top-selling, industry-award-winning Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, features gang warfare and the killing of prostitutes. Another, released on the forty-first anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, gets players to step into the shoes of Lee Harvey Oswald and to aim at the president’s head as his motorcade rolls by. “Content descriptors” for video games also suggest how lurid the violence can be. These games include depictions of “blood and gore (mutilation of body parts),” “intense violence (human injury or death),” and “sexual violence (depictions of rape and other sexual acts).”

No sooner had Blagojevich unveiled his proposal than he faced powerful organized opposition from the entertainment industry. The Illinois Retail Merchants Association, the National Association of Theater Owners, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, and the Motion Picture Association of America took strong exception to the legislation. Imposing a curb on the free market is not the way to protect kids, these critics argued. Instead, parents should screen what their kids are buying and playing. As one lobbyist put it: “Retailers can’t be held accountable for lack of oversight by parents.”

This is a distortion of the governor’s position, and of the problem. No one denies that parents have the primary responsibility for monitoring their kids. Blagojevich points out, though, that the sophisticated technology of video games makes that very hard to do. Consequently, it’s up to the state to step in on the side of parents and children to help them cope.

The industry argument would be plausible if it were still 1955. Back then, it was easier for parents to exercise strict oversight. The big, boxy home entertainment technologies of that era-radio, television, and record players-produced images and sounds that parents could see and hear. They came with OFF buttons for parents to push and plugs for parents to pull. All that has changed. The new entertainment technologies include a dizzying and ever-multiplying array of small, portable, individual, kid-friendly devices that defy close parental supervision. It was easy for parents to check on a half-hour TV show. It’s much harder to review a video game. The games feature successive levels of difficulty; players must qualify at a lower level before earning the right to move to a higher level. So it takes time and practice before acquiring the skill to progress to the highest level of the game-which may also be its highest level of violence. To ensure that a video game isn’t excessively violent, a parent would have to be looking over a child’s shoulder until the highest level of play was finally revealed. This could take days.

Moreover, it isn’t as if parents and the video-game industry meet each other on a level playing field. This is a multibillion-dollar industry that spends all its time and money devising ever more ingenious ways to market to kids over the heads of their parents and to deliberately undermine the ability of parents to regulate what their children are seeing. And in a tactic called “age compression,” the marketers target their appeals to ever-younger kids. Like the youth sex revolution, the youth marketing revolution has migrated down the age scale. Even four-year-olds know what is cool.

To be sure, the industry’s Entertainment Software Rating Board has voluntarily established its own ratings system. The trouble is: It isn’t enforced. A study by the Federal Trade Commission found that early teens were able to buy games rated M (Mature 17+) 69 percent of the time.

It is telling that the makers and sellers of video games have responded so quickly and vigorously to Governor Blagojevich’s very modest proposal. Clearly the corporate sector finds it in its interest to prompt kids to engage in fantasy rape, beheadings, and mass murder. And why should we expect otherwise? Its interest is the bottom line. Violence sells. But isn’t it in the compelling interest of the community to curb such violent play? 

Published in the 2005-01-28 issue: 
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Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture (Knopf), directs the Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values.

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