A Challenge to Freedom

A European perspective on the Californian violent games bill. (Hi Ted!)

The chances are that you've already seen "A Challenge to the Press", a blog post made this week by Insomniac Games' Ted Price. In it, he bemoans alleged misquoting in press articles, and goes on to challenge the press to abandon tabloid-style quote-led stories in favour of in-depth reporting of an issue close to his own heart - the US Supreme Court's upcoming decision on a Californian law which would forbid the sale of games with mature content to children.

I don't really want to speak to the first part of Price's argument - others have already done so, more eloquently and passionately than I could. I would, however, like to briefly look at the second part of his argument - not least because, while Price may expect gamers to universally share his concerns, I'm really not sure that's the case on this side of the puddle.

As a European, the first time I encountered the long-running battle over the sale of violent games to minors in the United States, it took a long time to wrap my head around the industry's arguments. As a gamer, I love my pastime; as a liberal-minded person, I have no truck with censorship. Yet I've lived my whole life in countries where those views sit fairly comfortably with the idea of restricting the sales of certain media to minors.

Bluntly, the idea of preventing children from buying 18-rated games (or the US equivalent of same) just doesn't seem like that big a deal to me.

I don't think I'm alone in this view. Every time the issue rears its head - which it has done with clockwork regularity over the past decade or so - the comments from European gamers carry the same air of bewilderment.

Almost every European country has some variation on the system in the UK, where age ratings are enforceable by law at a retail level - in other words, where retailers can be punished for selling adult-rated games to kids - and yet our sky has resolutely failed to collapse onto our heads. Engage in a discussion on this topic with European gamers, and you're more likely to be subjected to frustrated accounts of watching ill-advised parents purchase 18-rated games for their 10-year-olds than you are to hear a heated call for the repeal of our laws.

Of course, California's violent games law isn't quite the same as the laws enacted by European nations - not least in that it's a pretty hasty, ill-considered piece of legislation, by all accounts. The logical thing, from our perspective in Europe, would be to give some legal weight to ESRB ratings - making it illegal for shops to sell M-rated games without seeing some ID first. (In a nation which happily asks white-haired, bearded grandfathers for ID before serving them beer, this is surely less of an imposition than it sounds to us free-wheeling, non-ID-carrying British types.)

That would make sense to me, although I don't think Price or his peers in the games businesses would like it much. The current proposed law is altogether less easy to agree with, as it ignores the ESRB in favour of setting out a rather nebulous set of standards for "unsuitable" content. The law's proponents clearly don't see the ESRB as being harsh enough in its judgements on content, a strong hint towards the ultra-conservative thought which underlies the bill.

Yet there's an argument which says that the bill has only been able to make it this far - all the way to a hearing in the US Supreme Court, where admittedly it seems likely to be defeated on constitutional grounds - because the industry has fought tooth and nail against it, rather than taking the wind out of its sails with a compromise.

Game publishers and retailers claim to be committed to keeping unsuitable products out of the hands of minors, and have launched various initiatives to that end over the past decade - but even if this has achieved some success in preventing retailers from unquestioningly handing M-rated games to children, it has always felt more like a rearguard action to stop US states from legislating against mature games, rather than a movement rooted in any true sense of social responsibility.

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