Lawmakers are uneducated about video game industry, panelist says

Monday, April 10, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As several city and state governments consider regulating violent video games, one of the biggest challenges the video game industry faces is educating the public about itself, an industry expert said today.

“Even the brightest and best and most scrupulous of our legislators for the most part are completely uneducated about what’s going on in our industry,” said Michael Wilson, CEO of Gathering of Developers, a computer and video game publishing company.

Wilson and several other panelists gathered at the First Amendment Center today to debate “Violence, Video Games and the First Amendment,” moderated by First Amendment Center Executive Director Ken Paulson. At the center of the discussion was proposed legislation in Tennessee that would require a state-approved rating system for video games and would make it a crime for retailers to sell violent games to minors.

Panelist Jeff Miller, a Tennessee state senator and co-sponsor of the measure, said he developed the legislation to make it easier for parents to decide what games their children should be allowed to play.

“We limit minors’ access to all sorts of things,” Miller said. “If we say that violence in movies and nudity in movies [are] not appropriate for people under the age of 17, then we should also think that these virtually realistic video games that depict nudity and violence fall [into] the same category.”

But Wilson says many legislators are ill-equipped to regulate the video game industry because they are not familiar with the modern generation of games.

Many legislators are “a part of the Pong generation and haven’t looked at games since then,” he said. “The unfortunate part is you end up with people who really have no idea what they’re talking about in relation to the games.”

Panelist Tom McCoy, a First Amendment scholar and law professor at Vanderbilt University, said he feared that some people might view legislation regulating video games as an excuse to censor other forms of media.

“Anytime you start down the road to censorship — even if [the legislation is] very narrowly drawn, even if it’s very carefully crafted, even if it’s directed only at children — anytime you start down that road, you encourage the pro-censorship urges among the general population,” McCoy said.

Wilson says the video games that are targeted by such legislation represent only a small part of the industry.

“There’s definitely a misconception driven by the (news) media that these games that you see here are representative of our industry, and they’re really only about five percent of our industry,” he said.

Panelist Dwight Lewis, an award-winning columnist and weekend editor for The Tennessean, says it’s the news media’s responsibility to alert the public to what role, if any, violent video games have played in such violent events as the Columbine and Paducah school shootings.

“Are we too alarmist, or are we being sensible?” Lewis asked. “I think it’s our job to let people know what’s out there.” Lewis added that the news media must also emphasize that every child who has played violent video games has not committed a violent act.

Panelist Jeanne B. Funk, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toledo, says that while media violence may not adversely affect every child, it may affect a troubled child.

“In general our society is very tolerant of all sorts of violent expression,” she said. “I think that that tolerance is so pervasive that it allows people who have other forms of disturbance to express that (disturbance) through violence.”

Wilson says problems arise when government officials try to regulate what’s appropriate for the majority based on what’s appropriate for the minority.

“It’s always such a slippery slope when you start talking about regulating people’s taste and when you start breaking down what’s obscene and what’s violent and what’s not,” he said. “Anytime that somebody’s deciding that for the citizens at large, I think it’s trouble. It’s the beginning of something much scarier.”