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Censorship At Its Finest: H.R. 287, The “Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act”
In the wake of yet another school shooting in the United States of America, the question of how to reduce gun violence in the country has once again risen to prominence. While many have proposed fairly reasonable steps that could be taken to curtail the amount of gun-related homicides, such as increased mental health infrastructure and/or stricter gun control, others have taken the opportunity to attack all manner of things they don’t like. One of the guiltiest parties in this regard has been the NRA, who in their statement on the Sandy Hook shooting managed to blame all sorts of irrelevant shit, including – of course – videogames.
Due probably in part to the NRA’s nonsense, as well as the general hysteria surrounding gun violence right now, videogames have once again become a focal point for those looking to blame violence on something other than systemic problems in their government. Earlier this week, Vice President Joe Biden met with industry leaders to discuss the issue of violence in games, and there was some serious debate amongst games journalists on whether this was a good idea.
Now, it appears video games will be forced to deal with the government and its attempts to stop gun violence in a far more direct way, and completely against the will of the industry. A new bill has been introduced in the American House of Representatives, titled the “Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act.” Essentially, it will require all games sold in the United States to carry an ESRB rating, and it will be completely illegal to sell unrated games.
From the body of this proposed legislation (which can be read in full here):
It shall be unlawful for any person to ship or otherwise distribute in interstate commerce, or to sell or rent, a video game that does not contain a rating label, in a clear and conspicuous location on the outside packaging of the video game, containing an age-based content rating determined by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
Now, it may be immediately obvious to many people why that’s a godawful idea. There is no other medium in existence that carries such a restriction, and for good reason; even movies, which have a similar content rating system to the ESRB, can still be sold without that rating if they so desire. Most theatres won’t show unrated movies, but the creators still have the right to distribute the movie in any way they please, whether that be through physical media or through a digital format.
This will no longer be the case for videogames, if this legislation passes. It will be completely illegal to sell any game, either physical or digital, without a rating from the ESRB. There’s no other word for it – that’s censorship, and should be rejected out of hand as a violation of the First Amendment. It prohibits the freedom of expression of game developers, and requires them to obtain consent from a private company before releasing their game on the supposed free market.
That issue of the ESRB being a private company also raises further issues. The House bill in question would give the ESRB – a self-regulated, privately controlled organization – the final say on what is and isn’t appropriate for children. The government is handing over the reigns of moral judgement to a private corporation, and not allowing any alternative ratings systems to even be considered. How can we be sure the ESRB represents the values of the majority of American citizens, when they’re a private company with no accountability to the public?
Some will be quick to point out that the MPAA, the organisation that rates movies, is also a private organization. The key difference between the two situations is that there’s no government requirement that movies receive MPAA ratings. The production houses control both the MPAA and the theatres to an extent that makes having an MPAA rating almost mandatory for a movie that wants to reach a mainstream audience, but there’s no government involvement whatsoever. If someone wanted to form an alternative ratings system and convince theatres to accept their ratings, there would be no law preventing that. Of course, there’s also the fact that the MPAA is in no way a system that we should hope to emulate in the games industry, because it’s a pretty broken system…but that’s a conversation for another time.
As if there wasn’t enough problems with this Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act already, there’s yet more issues beyond those of censorship. Even if your game has no content that anyone would find objectionable, and would pass any ratings standard in the world, there’s still the issue of actually getting it rated in the first place. If no game is allowed to reach the market without a rating, it forces even the most innocuous of games to obtain that rating, and that costs money. Not a particularly small amount of it, either; according to a Joystiq report from a couple years ago, the ESRB charges a $2500 fee when a game is submitted for rating. That’s not an insignificant cost for indie studios.
To summarize: the American government is trying to pass a law that will require you to pay money to – and be subjected to the moral standard of – a private corporation, if you want to release your creative work into the American free market. Every other medium is off the hook, and only videogames will be subject to this demand. If that doesn’t sound like crazy talk to you, then I don’t know what to tell you.