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Pulp Culture
Campaign against video games is political grandstanding

March 24, 2005
By Franklin Harris

Whenever anyone says we must do something for "our children's sake," watch out. This is when government inevitably is up to no good.

Alabama is one of several states considering legislation to restrict the sale and rental of "violent" and "sexually explicit" video games to children. The others include Illinois and Maryland, as well as the District of Columbia. The underlying assumption, laid out in Alabama's bill, is that "it has now been established by overwhelming scientific, law enforcement and medical evidence that violent and sexually themed video and computer games can and do harm to not only the consumers of the games but also lead to harmful behaviors toward innocent third parties . . ."

As it happens, there is no "overwhelming" evidence of the kind. The studies so far are deeply flawed, and none deals with the plain facts of the matter, including, obviously, the fact that millions of people play violent video games without becoming criminals. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says the link between media violence and real-world violence is simply "an article of faith" that isn't backed by the scientific evidence. He goes on to say that "psychologists who have recently reviewed the literature have concluded that exposure to media violence has little or no effect on violent behavior in the world."

How absurd is this campaign against video games? While lawmakers are busy grandstanding, juvenile crime and teenage pregnancies are on the decline. Never mind that the typical video-game player is 30 years old, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The ESA already administers a ratings system for video games, and most stores already refuse to sell games rated "Mature" and "Adults Only" to children.

In short, bills like the one pending in the Alabama Legislature are laws in search of a problem that doesn't exist. Of course, one could say the same of most bills passed by the Alabama Legislature. This is a government body, after all, that has tried to criminalize the sale of sex toys to adults for no reason other than that they seem to offend the sensibilities of Sen. Tom Butler, D-Madison.

If all of this seems familiar, it's because the same arguments now leveled against video games were leveled against comic books in the 1950s. The U.S. Senate held hearings, during which psychologist Fredric Wertham, author of "Seduction of the Innocent," claimed that comic books turned children into juvenile delinquents and sex maniacs. But now, of course, almost everyone recognizes that Wertham was, at best, misguided or, at worst, a crank.

Laws like those under consideration here and elsewhere are insidious. They seek to transfer the responsibility for parenting from parents to the government, which has a difficult enough time delivering the mail, never mind acting as parent to millions of children. They are like other proposed laws that would turn the public schools into "fat police," informing parents as to whether their children are obese, as if parents cannot already tell if their children need to lose weight. These laws treat parents like children.

Of course, some parents say they need the help. The common complaint is that there are too many media available today, and not just video games, for parents to monitor what their children watch. Parenting, the argument goes, is much more difficult than it was in years past.

Actually, however, it has never been easier to be a parent. Two centuries ago, parents worried about their children facing disease and starvation. If parents today spend a lot of time worrying about popular entertainment, then that's because they don't have anything else to worry about.

Restricting video-game sales won't protect children, who aren't in danger, anyway. But it will give politicians more power, which, as always, is what they're really after.

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