Game sales to minors should remain unregulated

Kerim Kivrak, Copy Editor

 In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook in December, opportunists in Congress and pundits rekindled a 30-year-old debate about violent video games.  Weeks after the tragedy, Representative Jim Matheson, Democrat of Utah, introduced a bill that would ban the sale of games not rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and make it illegal to sell an M-rated (“17+”) game to a child under the age of 17.

Thankfully, two months later, the bill has made no progress and shows no signs of picking up steam in the House.  Yet there are many who support Matheson’s propositions, and these terribly uninformed and misguided ideas enjoy considerable popularity in both the media and among slacktivist suburban parents.

The current debate is reminiscent of two incidents in the past: a 1993 Senate hearing on violent video games led by former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, and a similar Congressional hearing concerning Rock lyrics in 1985, where Frank Zappa and Dee Snider squared off against Tipper Gore and her crusade to protect children from obscene music.

The arguments have not changed in the past 20 years, and calls for government action are just as misguided today as they were in 1985 and in 1993–and for the same reasons.

In 1993, industry representatives argued that there was no significant evidence suggesting that violent video games-like the infamous Mortal Kombat which prompted the hearing-had any impact on the psychology of the children who played them.  This is true today.

The research suggesting that violent video games cause violent behavior in children leaves much to be desired.  Several studies have claimed to have found a causal link between violent games and aggressive behavior, but most fall into the same pitfall of accurately quantifying aggression.

In Dec.  2012, a study out of Ohio State University boasted definitive proof that playing violent video games caused aggressive behavior.

As always, the trouble lies in the methodology used to gauge “aggressiveness.”  Subjects’ aggressiveness was measured through a “competitive reaction time task,” in which subjects competed against an unseen opponent in a computer game in which they tried to be the first to react to a visual cue.  The loser was penalized with “a blast of unpleasant noise.”

Obviously, the subjects with prolonged exposure to violent video games fared better than those who did not.

This test was considered a measure of aggression, and the subjects who reacted quicker were deemed more aggressive.

All this study really proves is that people who spend time in an activity that rewards quick reaction times will excel in tests of their reaction times.

The researchers reveal a fundamental ignorance of the very video games they are studying-the “violent” games subjects were exposed to were all shooting games, and the “nonviolent” games were all racing games.  Anyone with any experience in either will tell you that one requires faster reaction times than the other.

This sort of oversight can be seen across the board in research on violent video games.

There is no evidence that violent video games increase aggressiveness in those who play them, because the tests of aggression are virtually all fundamentally flawed.

At best, these studies show that those who engage in simulated violence in video games will be less hesitant to engage in simulated violence in an experiment.

But what these studies fail to show is that these children will be any more disposed to throw empathy and morality to the wind and engage in actual violence against other human beings.

Regardless, many continue to push for a ban on sales of M-rated games to children under 17.  A similar measure was proposed for “obscene” music albums in the ‘80s.  Zappa argued that “protecting” children from obscenity was the responsibility of parents, not the government.

The same is true of violence in video games.

Disregarding that most retailers already refuse to sell M-rated games to children under 17 without any sort of legislation, a child who wishes to purchase a violent video game needs $60 (for a brand-new game) or a credit card (for digitally distributed games).

Neither of these are things that the average impressionable nine-year-old comes across without help from a parent.

There should be no legislation overriding the judgment sensible parents who trust their children’s ability to distinguish between entertainment and reality.