Rated E for Everyone? We need ratings, not regulation.

**UPDATE**  Hey gang, just came across this article that takes aim at a popular book for its perceived violent attitude toward kids.  Thought it was an interesting addendum to this conversation.

Howdy folks!  I've been away from the computer/blog for the last few days attending a wedding, so I hope you're all well.  I left South Texas hot and dry and, unfortunately, I found it unchanged upon my return.  I think it's interesting how some things seem so prone to change--like weather, moods and gas prices--and other things are so resistant.  Societal and cultural values are often some of the most resistant, I've noticed.

The Supreme Court ruled today that the state of California cannot prohibit minors from purchasing violent video games.  The issue stemmed from a previous law made by the state which would fine retailers up to $1,000 if they sold violent games to children of a certain age.  You can read more about it HERE.

The ruling basically keeps the purchasing decision in the hands of parents and the young people they give money to.  Strictly regulating the content of video games isn't a new phenomenon, but it's a relatively new legal battle for the United States.  Australia has had one of the strictest censorship programs in the western world for quite some time now.  (You can read about it HERE.)   The issue of violent games and their influence over the young people who play them has been broached before in the U.S., but no state had made any real attempt to legally regulate it until California.

It's no secret that I love video games.  My generation was the first--starting with Atari--to grow up with a video game console in most households.  I've seen the death of gaming as a niche form of entertainment, and its rebirth as the largest entertainment industry in the world.  In 2009 video games earned more money than movies (all combined sales).  Video games have multi-million dollar production costs and are only gaining in popularity as the generation that grew up enjoying them as kids have moved into adulthood and (surprise!) are still loving them.

Even still, I'm sure you're wondering why I'm talking about a video game law on a writing blog.

In the Supreme Court's ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia cited literature as a precedent for not meddling in in the lives of children's entertainment as it pertained to violence.  Here's a quote from the article linked above:  "Citing examples of violence in classic children’s literature like Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Lord of the Flies Justice Antonin Scalia said a state's right to protect minors, 'does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.' Scalia noted that 'this country has no tradition of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence,' citing a longrunning history of attempts to restrict violence in movies and comic books."

Movies have long been regulated.  There are ratings, and theaters are 'supposed' to adhere to them.  Rated R means Restricted, and no one under the age of 17 is allowed to watch unless they are accompanied by an adult.  What gets you an R rating?  Nudity and sex.  Language and violence alone won't do it in most cases.  Many other countries around the world view nudity and sex as lesser evils when compared to stabbing and shooting, but not the U.S.  Here, boobies = bad and bullets = borderline.

It should also be pointed out that video games carry ratings too.  Just not all of them.  Only the most violent and provocative games carry the dreaded M rating (for mature), and retailers are at liberty to restrict (or not) purchase accordingly.  In truth, the rating is more for parents than retailers.

Fans of freedom of choice, and those who hate censorship, will applaud the Court's decision.  It clearly keeps state governments from putting social blinders on young people, and keeps the ball in the parent's court.  They'll argue that censorship is a slippery slope and that, if allowed, we soon won't have control over what our children do or see if even one such law is allowed.  On the other hand, parents who have kids sneaking to their friends house to steal cars and shoot prostitutes in the latest Grand Theft Auto game aren't quite so excited.  They'll argue that seeing violence on TV and taking control of a character and acting out that violence are two very different things.  That simulating the bashing of someone to death with a baseball bat is something no child should be allowed to do, regardless of what their parents think.

This brings me back to books.  There is clearly a parallel in terms of both games and books providing entertainment of the 'made up' variety to people of all ages.  Many readers and writers are quick to raise the hackles when people start talking about limiting access to certain types of literature due to content.  I've done it here on this blog when religious bozos started banning books in Missouri on the basis of implied immorality and raciness.  Are video games THAT different?  Can we abhor censorship in our favorite form of entertainment, but not in others?  You can see from Justice Scalia's statement above, other people are already making the correlation.

I'm most definitely not in favor of censorship.  I do think the choices should be left up to parents and other responsible adults.  However, I also think we should make it easier to make those choices.  No parent should have to play every video game their kid brings home start to finish just to see if it's too violent.  Nor should they be expected to read every book their child reads.  Once they hit 9 or 10 and start reading 3 books a week like my nephew, that ceases to be a viable option for most busy parents.  Apply a ratings system with easy to understand and clearly stated guidelines.

Ratings prevent censorship, not encourage it.  If every video game was clearly rated for certain content, laws like the one in California could never be made.  There could never be an argument for the 'unsuspecting child or parent'.  It's written on the box, you knew what you were getting into.  If a store allows your kid to buy a game that's over the suggested age, don't shop there any more.  The same applies for books.  Don't want your kids reading about making out?  Put a notice on their library account.

The more I see issues like this make it all the way to the highest courts, the more I get nervous about the future when it comes to access to great works of literature (like Speak and Huck Finn), and even classic video games that I'd like to someday share with my kids.  (How long until someone deems Zelda as too violent for all of that sword play, or too tawdry for all that Princess smooching?)  Particularly in the book world, our attitudes toward censorship have been way too reactive as opposed to proactive.  I think it's time for that to change.



  1. Here's my problem with ratings:

    1. They often (as you mentioned) tend to be arbitrary and subject to the prejudices and whims of the organization doing the rating.

    2. Ratings have created boundaries for filmmakers. Studios decided they won't touch an R-rated comedy, so it has to be edited down to a PG-13 to appeal to a broader audience. It isn't about what best serves the story, but about what will sell best.

    3. Ratings over-simplify content. They say that all violence is the same, since it is all rated the same. Never mind that some might be gratuitous and some serve as an important story element. Parents are still going to have to research content, because, when it comes down to it, the ratings don't tell them anything about the views and responsibility of the storyteller. What if a story is demeaning to women? I find that more damaging than a character talking about sex in an honest and responsible way. But, it would probably receive a lower rating.

    In the end, especially with literature, the ratings don't tell you anything at all. They just impose more restrictions and give us more opportunities to judge a book we know nothing about. Can't you just see school libraries deciding not to carry any R-rated books? Parents issuing a blanket ban? What wonderful books will be branded and avoided? Ratings just make it easier to regulate.

    I think it's a dangerous road. Books are the last, free territory and I'd hate to see them subjected to this.

  2. They could never do ratings for books like they do with movies, but a self-imposed rating like the music industry possesses would be more viable. I'd have no problem with voluntary ratings.

  3. I'm all for parents making the decisions about what their kids should and should not play and read, but my problem with this law is that it's incredibly inconsistent with the regulations we already have in place concerning minors buying pornography, as you eloquently alluded to with your "boobies" reference. :)

    I personally don't see the problem in not allowing minors purchase M-rated video games; if they want the games, have their parents buy them for them, by all means. To be blunt (and to be "that person"), if someone's kid's biggest problem of the day is "I want GTA and I can't legally buy it and my rights are being infringed upon!" maybe that kid needs a few months of volunteer work in a third-world country to know what having your rights revoked is really like.

    I'm with you on censorship, but I don't know if regulating video game purchases based on violence/sexuality ratings and the buyer's age is a clear connection to censorship, really. It'd be more similar to the regulations we have in place for cigarettes and alcohol: it's there, it's available, but you have to be an adult to buy it. The only question is what defines "bad", and that's a tough question to answer, I admit (Bugs Bunny was quite the BAMF, as we all know).

    I guess at the end of the day, it's hard for me to think that a kid no more than eight could walk into a GameStop and buy, for example, GTA (although HIGHLY unlikely, I know) and play it. That kid will be an adult one day, and I wonder how games like GTA might influence him in how he treats others. I want to believe that most parents aren't going to be ridiculous in that case, but the truth is, there are parents out there who might be oblivious. I guess that's no different from having a parent buy GTA for their 8-year old, but I would like to believe the likelihood of that happening would decrease had they not voted to turn over this law.

    Sorry to go on, but it's a very interesting topic! I'm not a gamer (beyond Uncharted, Little Big Planet, Portal and Nintendo), but my husband's a BIG one. Honestly, he was surprised by this. (And, as a former employee of GameStop, he said they would never allow a minor to buy something M-rated. Interesting...)

    I'd love to follow this thread. I'll check back later to check out other peoples' responses. It's always interesting to get other perspectives! :)

  4. In a few years, if the American Academy of Pediatrics can amass enough "statistical proof" that playing violent video games leads to a higher rate of violent behavior among children, the issue may have to be revisited. This is just another perfect example of accumulating data when common sense would suffice. Just when the powers that be issued a cautionary statement suggesting that sleep disturbances in young children can be traced to watching anything at all on TV before bedtime...even cartoons.
    Go figure.

  5. @ Sarah: I think you're dead right on almost everything you said. Ratings do tend to get out of hand. (Just look at movies in the 80s! Gremlins and Indiana Jones - Temple of Doom had some seriously messed up stuff going on in them and both were PG.) Plus, determining who comes up with the ratings is a big issue, as Alex alluded to.

    However, I'd still argue the pros outweigh the cons in every instance BUT the library scenario you gave. So long as the ratings aren't construed as a hard line, I think they'd do more good than harm. There is way more conjecture involved when individuals are allowed to run with things they deem inappropriate. In fact, I don't remember the last time a major movie-related ratings fiasco took place.

    My wife wasn't allowed to watch the Simpsons growing up. Now you compare that to stuff like Family Guy and South Park and it seems beyond silly that a parent would forbid the Simpsons. (I still remember how big a deal it was for Bart to say 'Butt and Ass' on a cable TV cartoon.) My point is that our sensitivity to certain topics or issues is highly relative to the times. (The Beatles and Elvis are good examples in rock and roll.) Ratings should be organic and taken on a case-by-case basis.

  6. @ Kat: I totally agree with the inconsistency issue, but I also know that my own interpretation of right/wrong and good/bad influence that. From a psychological standpoint, I think we (in the U.S.) totally glorify alcohol and really exacerbate the problems it can bring (drunk driving, binge drinking, etc.) by allowing issues of morality to sway the law. The data backs me up as European countries that do not adhere to strict age limits on alcohol consumption have much fewer problems with alcohol abuse. Simply put, they teach their children from an early age that alcohol isn't some taboo thing to be explored and abused once you finally reach a certain age. It's something you drink with a meal and for enjoyment, and there isn't some golden moment when society allows you to do so. It's normalized.

    As I mentioned, we do the same things with sex and nudity. Why are images of boobs (I should really find a new name, but it's fun to type in a quasi-serious blog subject :-) such a big deal to 13 year olds? Because we make them a big deal! If they were on billboards like they are in France, I'm not sure they'd hold such magical sway over pre-pubescent boys. Well, maybe they would, but still ...

    To be clear, I'm totally okay with what you said: It would be fine to make a parent or adult be present to purchase a Mature rated game. There's some fine tuning to the ratings (as they currently exist) that would need to be done first, but I think that would be fair. Namely, they'd need to rate every game. Also, I really agree that we've somehow made violence "not as bad" as some other issues that seem--at least in my mind--to be far less concerning.

  7. HI Wesley. Had to come back after you said you were an Okie. I was born in Tulsa, lived in Kansas for a few years, then the fam went to Enid then moved to Denver when I was in High school and I never looked back. I have family there and most of them have difficulty thinking of changing ANYTHING so I know what you're talking about.

    As far as censorship goes-- I work for the library so it's always a hot topic in my world. You cannot have parents have notes place on library cards because that places the burden of parenting on the library. Not our job. If parents do not like the freedom of information the child has once they walk into the library (and that includes videos or books or CDs) they either do not allow them to come into the library alone (my preference!) or do not let them carry their own card (not bad either) or don't let them have a card in the first place. When I was a MIDDLE school librarian however there were parents who did not allow their children to check out books on sex education. The kids had borrow the book from friends to learn about periods and sex. Pretty sad that they could have sex if they were alone with a boy or girl because kids were obviously old enough to DO the deed but if they got caught with a book they'd get in big trouble! I do not have a problem with the labels, however but don't think it's the store's job to censor the kids. IT's a parent's job to know what they're kids are buying and renting- and I hope, as i write, that my son who is sleeping at a friends house, is not watching some porn. But kids do things they should not do at friends homes and we can't keep them in glass houses and pretend they don't (I have three kids- two grown daughters). I do trust him and I think if he does something tonight he knows he shouldn't that he won't go to that friend's home again the next time he's asked over.

  8. Maybe this is self-evident, but comparing rating movies to anything else that you purchase and take home doesn't work. The movie ratings work, whether they are arbitrary or overly-puritan, because you purchase a ticket and view the text in the theater. These other texts are taken home and then it's up to the family to figure out how they are to be viewed, whether they are books, games, or DVDs. (Notice how there is no restriction on kids buying R-rated DVDs; why should there be for M-rated games?) Just thinking out loud here...

    It Just Got Interesting

  9. You hit the nail right on the head with your comments about how Europeans perceive nudity and alcohol abroad. I see that with the Italian/French/Spanish students I see who nearly consider it a mortal sin to abuse wine when it's meant to be paired with foods, not something for drunkenness. Nudity the same, of course. Perhaps there's a cultural standard of what's deemed "appropriate" and what isn't? I know from my own country of Canada, we lean more towards nudity than violence as being the "lesser of two evils." In fact, if you air a film that contains sex and violence in it on TV in Canada, it's more likely to have the violence censored than the nudity/sex; whereas it's the opposite in the States. That really surprised me when I first moved to California.

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  11. An article I read recently suggested that children raised with a moral sense of right and wrong will decide on their own what is acceptable reading.

    About alcohol consumption, E.J., I was raised in a small town (five churches, fifty taverns (yes, 50), in Wisconsin. Consuming alcohol was an accepted way of life with no stigma attached. Now, Wisconsin has one of the highest rates of alcoholism and drunk drivers in the country.

  12. Video games always catch a bad rap. Sure they may be violent, but they teach teamwork, thinking skills, problem solving skills, and improve eye-hand coordination. I don't understand why there are groups that want to shove what amounts to bad parenting on the blame that video games has caused their child to develop bad habits.

  13. EJ - I've enjoyed your posts on this topic - sorry I have been a bad commenter =( crazy hours are to blame!

    Keep writing - I enjoy reading!

  14. I'm with you sir. I let my kids play the games that are suited and appropriate for their ages. I hope they never choose games that glorify violence against the innocent.

  15. I totally agree, E.J, and I've said this before as well.

    There's a lot less worry about children watching inappropriate stuff because of the ratings. Some parents will turn off the tv for PG-13, some will watch with their kids, and some think their kids are mature enough to handle it.

    Sure, there exists the possibility that the ratings will be incorrect, but I think ratings will reduce censorship. How often do entire counties and states ban a movie?

    And there's the option of more detailed ratings. Rated: Sexual Content, High Sexual Content,Violence, High Violence, etc. And having the categories listed somewhere.

    I don't think it's ideal, but it's miles better than what's happening now.

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