Regulation Is Everyone's Business
Thirty years into their popular existence and videogames continue to get beat up by the media, by politicians, and by activists purportedly out to save our culture. Thirty years is too long for videogames to continue to be constantly forced on the defensive. The old fights haven't gone away, and now more than ever it is time that creators collectively take a stand for our art form, our industry, and the careers we've built over a lifetime.
Simply put, there's crazy stuff going on out there. Thailand has recently implemented a 10 p.m. curfew on playing games in cafes. Germany 's notorious "index" of blacklisted titles continues to grow. Greece tried to ban all digital game playing in one fell swoop. Afghanistan has shut down every last cybercafe as a means to preserve its cultural morals. And the state of Washington is set on protecting the health and safety of its law enforcement officials by regulating game sales to minors. Sadly, I could go on.
The perception that games are "bad" for us stubbornly persists, and we have yet to find effective ways to change people's minds on this issue. Game makers may be biased toward games' "good" qualities, but you'd be surprised how many developers simply don't care about the issue of public perception, don't have an informed opinion, or believe it is all a big waste of time - even to the extent of questioning the need to fight government regulations.
Sure, the headlines make us look bad: "Government working to protect; industry fighting for right to corrupt." Many of us are not comfortable confronting that image. The following are several common misperceptions developers hold about regulation and what our role, as creators, should be in fighting it.
"Government regulation is no big deal, they're just reinforcing industry ratings." Wrong. None of the proposed bills are based on the ESRB ratings system. In fact, it's unconstitutional for the U.S. government to regulate or enforce a private ratings system. As such, each bill aims to set its own moral barometer and establish often vague metrics for what is acceptable for everyone to purchase and play. Dancing around a state-by-state patchwork of content restrictions and peculiarities would be prohibitive not only for developers, but also for time-deprived parents and retailers (who are already working with an existing rating system).
"Law X or Y don't seem so harmful, but fighting all of them makes us look bad." Each law and court case sets a precedent for the next. The St. Louis case where Judge Stephen Limbaugh ruled that games do not express ideas inspired both the Washington State bill and the reissue of Rep. Joe Baca's (D-Calif.) "Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act" in Congress. While Limbaugh's ruling was later overturned on appeal, reaffirming that games do express ideas and should be protected by the First Amendment, at least another dozen similar bills are in the works. For example, the state of South Carolina is looking to go one step further than Washington and regulate the sale of games depicting violence against law enforcement officials to all consumers, not just minors. That means you.
"This doesn't affect me, it's the publisher's problem." Wrong again. While most publishers usually handle rating submissions and take the brunt of any backlash, the system has direct impact on developers. If retailers are unwilling to stock games with certain types of content (such as violence against law enforcement officials) for fear of running afoul of the law, publishers will not have an outlet to sell such games and will therefore not fund game developers to make them. This is commonly referred to as the "chilling effect" of regulation. So, tough luck for any developer hoping to create the next crime-caper masterpiece.
"I don't like or make violent games, so regulation is O.K. for me." Standing up for creative freedom isn't about fighting for the rights of any one specific game or developer. We need to stand up for the medium as a whole. Who are we (or anyone else for that matter) to judge what is good or bad for others? While I may not personally agree with some design choices, I strongly believe in developers' freedom of expression. Where will it end? The government's current fascination with violence may soon expand and put your nonviolent game square in their viewfinder. Case in point, an Australian minister wants to ban Project Gotham Racing 2 (rated E for everyone, containing no violence) because he fears it will promote reckless driving in the streets of Sydney!
"Politicians are acting in their constituents' best interest, and there's nothing I can do." Historically, censorship and regulation have never truly been about the best interest of the people. If there's any doubt that some of these constituencies seem self-contradictory on the issue of violence, consider that it is legal for a minor to own a handgun if under the supervision of a guardian in Washington State and there are no laws requiring trigger locks to prevent a child from accidentally discharging a loaded weapon - and those are just two examples of many.
In light of these facts, it's clear that rolling over is the worst possible course of action for developers seeking to protect their craft and livelihoods.
Fortunately, there are several small and immediate steps we can all take. For starters, stay informed on the topic and read the news. You can head out to a local IGDA chapter meeting to discuss these issues with your peers. Try to attend at least one GDC session on these issues. The ESA also has a grassroots database where you can sign up to follow what's going on in your town or state. Finally, write a friendly letter to your local and federal representatives explaining how you see your profession.
In the bigger picture, resolve to push boundaries and innovate. Higher courts are reinforcing our view that games are an expressive medium worthy of the same free speech protections as other forms of art and entertainment. Let us not lose that respect nor give them excuses to question it. We need not put a stop to games with violence, but we need other avenues beyond violence as a design crutch.
Finally, have self-respect. As we all know, developing a game is a massively complex and creative endeavor. Take a stand when friends and family come down hard on games (yes, that means another attempt at explaining to your parents what exactly it is you do for a living). Better yet, don't back down when your cornered. Because the best defense is a good offense, the IGDA has prepared a simple set of key points every developer can use to talk him- or herself out of a corner.
Videogames belong at center stage.
(A version of this article first appeared in the October issue of Game Developer magazine.)
- Discuss game violence and regulation in the discussion forums
- Violence & Social Issues - Key Points
- Violence & Social Issues - References/Resources
- "Your Public Needs You - Why do we care what nongamers think?"
- "Collision Detection: Gaming and its naysayers arm for battle. Again."
Jason Della Rocca is the executive director of the International Game Developers Association, working to build a unified development community and common industry voice on topics such as student outreach, concerns over game violence, diminishing the impact of exploitative patents, and increasing diversity.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the IGDA.