Unfortunately, this is not an April Fools Joke.
As mentioned in my previous entry, Governor Jennifer Granholm recently held a press conference to support a bill introduced in the Michigan Senate to restrict video game sales to minors. While the sentiment is worthy, the proposed legislation is abhorrent, as is the characterization of game developers as “those who would poison the minds of our young people” (as reported by Gamasutra).
The bill in question is Senate Bill 0249 (SB249), introduced by Hansen Clarke (et al) on February 24, notably without any known consultation with the existing game industry in Michigan. It is actually quite brief, amending the Michigan penal code by adding a section to Chapter XX (Children) as follows:
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN ENACT:
(1) A PERSON SHALL NOT SELL OR RENT A RESTRICTED VIDEO GAME TO A PERSON WHO IS LESS THAN 17 YEARS OF AGE. AS USED IN THIS SECTION, “RESTRICTED VIDEO GAME” MEANS A VIDEO GAME RATED AO (ADULTS ONLY) OR M (MATURE) BY THE ENTERTAINMENT SOFTWARE RATING BOARD.
(2) A PERSON WHO VIOLATES THIS SECTION IS GUILTY OF A MISDEMEANOR PUNISHABLE BY IMPRISONMENT FOR NOT MORE THAN 1 YEAR OR A FINE OF NOT MORE THAN $5,000.00, OR BOTH.
I have neither the time nor the finger strength to detail all of the problems with this legislation in a single post, but I will make just a few quick points.
The first part of the bill specifies that a “restricted video game” is determined by a rating given by the ESRB, which is a private enterprise that (appropriately) charges publishers to rate video games. As currently written, a game developer could write and sell the most vile, disgusting title ever seen and as long as the publisher does not spend the money to have the game rated, it is legal to sell to minors. (I almost said “perfectly legal”, but a game that goes too far could potentially be subject to less specific morality laws.)
The logical conclusion is that there would be an attempt, either in debate or in future legislation, to close this loophole, which could really only be done by mandating game ratings. First Amendment concerns aside, this would require all game developers to spend significant money to have their games rated, which would put an unfair burden on independent developers yet have no noticeable impact on those publishers at which this legislation is directed.
The second part of the bill sets the penalties to be imposed on the “criminals” who would violate the law. It also transfers parental responsibility from those individuals who have the duty to monitor what their children play onto the primarily young people who work the registers at retail and rental stores.
It is important to note that the MPAA ratings used for movies in the United States is a voluntary system which works well, and there are no legal age restrictions on movies in Michigan. In other words (to put things into perspective), a theater operator who allows a seven-year-old child into a violent R-rated movie like Natural Born Killers or Kill Bill is not guilty of any crime, but a college student working at a store could be sent to jail for a year for renting Halo 2 to a 16-year-old.
To be clear, voluntary game ratings, as the ESRB and others are intended to work, are a good thing. They give responsible parents the information they need to begin to monitor the games their children play. However, they are supposed to be a tool, not a crutch. Attempts to legally restrict game sales, no matter how well-intentioned, are a bad idea.
Instead of faulty legislation, our government should be encouraging retailers and rental companies to impose or maintain policies based on voluntary game ratings. Better still, they should be encouraging parents to become more involved with their children, rather than just unfairly presenting video games as a scapegoat for all of society’s ills.