America the Parent?

Why is government trying to be our parent again? Congress’s latest effort is the campaign to regulate video game content. Yet this is not new: we’ve already seen politicians’ hand-wringing over MySpace, Howard Stern, and Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction. ” And don’t forget the Communications Decency Act, struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997, which targeted the early Internet.


Granted, parenting is tough—as shows like “Nanny 911” illustrate—yet parents still must make final decisions as to what is appropriate for their children. Content regulation would take away that right and responsibility.


Pending before the Senate is legislation sponsored by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CN) to prohibit retailers from selling video games labeled with a “mature” or “adults only” rating to minors, in the belief that violent video games promote aggressive behavior. But the reasons for such behavior are numerous, and games generally play only a small role in a child’s life. This bill would only duplicate successful private efforts to keep violent video games from children. Worst of all, it flies in the face of the First Amendment.


Today’s multi-tasking generation of children incorporates music, phone conversations, text messaging, blogs, and other forms of entertainment and communication with video games. Games occupy only part of kids’ full attention.


The gaming industry has already created an effective self-regulatory system. This system’s primary goal is to help parents make the decision about what is appropriate for their children by providing adequate information about the content of such games, on both the packaging and in various product reviews. 


The Entertainment Software Rating Board’s extensive ratings categories effectively describe what particular video games contain for concerned guardians. The simple but informative ratings range from “E,” for everyone, to “AO,” for adults only—with obvious parallels to the generally well accepted movie industry rating system. Much like the “R” rating for movies, the rating “M” for mature advises parents that children under the age of 17 ought not to play. (For example, no rational person would suggest that the violent “Grand Theft Auto” game should be played by young children.)


Particularly in an environment in which computer gaming companies have taken it upon themselves to inform their customers of what they are buying, the creator’s rights to freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution should be protected from political interference. 

Indeed, the Supreme Court has already ruled that entertainment is as protected under the First Amendment as the conveyance of information. As the Court ruled in Winters v. New York (1948): “We [cannot accept] that the constitutional protection for a free press applies only to the exposition of ideas. The line between the informing and the entertaining is too elusive for the protection of that basic right.”


Furthermore, the Court has said that when regulating content Congress must provide a compelling governmental interest and then narrowly tailor the regulation to achieve that interest. The Clinton/Lieberman bill will not meet these criteria: Studies connecting child violence to video games are suspect at best, and without the proper nexus, a valid governmental objective does not exist. Furthermore, the legislation proposes mandating the voluntary ratings system that is already in place—needlessly duplicating the process the marketplace has already created. Let’s not forget that the makers of video games are often parents, too.             


The Clinton/Lieberman bill would take away from parents the ability to decide what is appropriate for their child. Contrary to the rhetoric circulated by the bill’s supporters, government making decisions for parents is not empowerment; it is micromanaging of the lives of Americans by infringing upon their freedom to choose and raise their children as they see fit. 


Parents, not video games, raise children. Video games, like movies, music, and novels, represent an escape from reality. Parents have the opportunity and responsibility to teach children fundamentals about fact and fairy tale, right and wrong, good and evil. Without these fundamentals, children will fail the test of life even if video games were banned altogether. Moreover, the unsupervised child, even under the Clinton/Lieberman legislation, would still find a way to play inappropriate video games. 


Parents, who know their children better than do Washington lawmakers, must choose what is appropriate for their children. There is no need for new burdensome, impractical regulation that undermines the principles of liberty on which our country was founded—especially when the rules won’t work and are unconstitutional, anyway.