Sunday, June 4, 2006

With the release of the Federal Trade Commission’s report on “Grand Theft Auto” expected shortly, look for video-game scourges to revive “protect the children” laws to ban violent game sales to minors. As nanny-state legislation goes, this wouldn’t likely do much harm. But it wouldn’t bring much benefit to children, either.

For one thing, these laws have tended to be mostly symbolic; the fact that interest in them tends to fade in the absence of newspaper headlines suggests strong elements of political theatrics at play. Second, the laws are regularly struck down by courts for their dubious constitutionality, and everyone including the scourges knows this. Third, more than 9 of 10 retailers have policies restricting the sale of such games to children anyway. All of which begs a question: Just how sincere are the proponents of these laws? Most of them are Democrats with strong interests in easy “moral values” scores. Smells like opportunism to us.

Headlining the forthcoming effort are Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman, whose bill to ban violent game sales to minors was launched last November. Back then, Mrs. Clinton promised to “empower parents by making sure their kids can’t walk into a store and buy a video game that has graphic, violent and pornographic content.” The “empower the parents” line is rich, since Mrs. Clinton specifically seeks to seize that prerogative. In any event, parents who happen to think “Grand Theft Auto” is just fine for little Johnny can easily circumvent this with a trip to Best Buy.

At issue, though, are the questions of whether government can make the determination of what constitutes a “violent” game with any fairness to families and to industry, whether government can justify the laws in light of clear First Amendment protections and whether any of it really even matters. Most action or adventure games could be considered “violent” cauldrons of virtual death and destruction. On the other hand, only 12 percent of video games earn a “mature” rating from industry, the sum of which account for just 14 percent of unit sales, according to the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Fewer than one percent earn an “adults only” rating. Games are clearly identifiable as “mature” content by labels on the packaging. Ninety-four percent of retailers have policies (sometimes spottily enforced) to prohibit their sale to minors.

In any event, what’s to stop a mother or father from simply confiscating “Grand Theft Auto” upon discovery in the PlayStation? Mrs. Clinton is silent on that question.

We live in an age of nanny-state government, so perhaps a law forcing retailers to police sales so parents don’t have to is inevitable. Of course, if the Clinton-Lieberman gaming law goes the way its predecessors have, the push for regulations will be revealed as the stunt it is. We’d vastly prefer politicians to fight real violence, not the kind in video consoles.

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