Video-game law lets parents shirk duty

Arnold Schwarzenegger acquired fame and fortune playing a slew of bloodthirsty meatheads. Now, as governor of California, he’s still trying to play action hero, but this time by restricting the sale of violent video games to minors. This time, though, the hero looks to do more harm than good.

In addition to posing a massive threat to free speech, a law signed by the governor Oct. 7 sets a precedent in which government regulation, far from helping parents, gives them an easy way to shirk their obligations by paying less attention to what games their children are playing. Good parents typically will concern themselves with what sorts of media – video games, movies, TV or Web sites – their children see and hear. But now that the government is willing to police content for them, parents may feel they needn’t bother.

Worse, the law sets a precedent that puts government, not parents, in charge of determining what content is acceptable for children. Some parents may support government setting rules about violent video games, but what happens when government decides to restrict access to other types of content or media? The Bible contains images of gruesome violence; should the government restrict access to it, too?

And it’s not just viewable content that this law positions government to regulate, but children’s thoughts and attitudes as well. The law declares that "exposing minors to depictions of violence in video games makes those minors more likely to experience feelings of aggression." It seems the government doesn’t just want to regulate our actions, but our thoughts and feelings as well. By that logic, we ought to restrict high school football as well; surely, plowing a gridiron opponent into the ground qualifies as experiencing an aggressive feeling.

This law is made even more useless by its impossibly vague language.

The law requires the labeling and restriction of games with violence that is "especially heinous, cruel or depraved." Clearly anticipating that this is an impossibly nebulous standard, the bill’s authors further defined cruel, depraved, and heinous, but the results are still far from precise.

"Heinous," for example, is defined to mean "shockingly atrocious," a definition as clear as mud. One can imagine a judge pondering a game’s content, thinking, "Well, I wasn’t sure if it was ‘heinous,’ but maybe ‘shockingly atrocious.’" One might as well have written a bill that simply restricts "all video games that are bad."

Anti-speech regulations such as this one foreshadow an America that is drifting towards the commonplace censorship used in the United Kingdom, where a recent law banned the use of attractive men in alcohol commercials. Now the British government has a board tasked with deciding whether an actor is too sexy to appear in alcohol ads. Is that the future we want for America?

Fortunately, courts have balked at similar laws unleashed in other cities and states as a violation of First Amendment rights. Over the past two years, federal courts have ruled against laws banning violent video games in Indianapolis, St. Louis County, Mo., and Washington state. And video-game industry trade groups continue to challenge such laws, not only in California but in Michigan and Illinois.

It’s ironic, of course, that Gov. Schwarzenegger, the Terminator, should be the one to sign the video game law. As star of such hyperviolent, macho fare as "Predator," "Conan: The Barbarian," and "Commando," Schwarzenegger is the poster boy for unapologetic bloodletting as entertainment. Yet now he wants to put government, not parents, in charge of designating what content is appropriate for minors.

Promoting fitness at schools around the country, Schwarzenegger’s catchphrase was "I want to pump you up!" This new law, however, just needs to be deflated.