Schwarzenegger v. EMA: A Brief History of Video Game Violence
The Supreme Court will now decide if video games are screwing up your kids enough to be regulated by the government.
The gaming community is abuzz about the current U.S. Supreme Court case concerning California's Assembly Bill 1179, and with good reason. This law would ban the sale of "violent" video games to minors in California and require these games to be labeled with an extra two by two inch sticker. Sound familiar? This law is nothing new. Plenty of states have created similar laws, but each time the EMA steps in and cleans up. Every one of these laws has been found unconstitutional by state courts, so it's safe to say that the EMA is on a serious kill streak. Despite this, California's law made it all the way to the Supreme Court. This is the final showdown, folks - this ruling may decide the issue once and for all.
Looking back over the past twenty years, it's surprising and somewhat hilarious to see the type of video games that were considered violent. In 1982, the Surgeon General called for action against violent video games where "[e]verything is 'zap the enemy.'" The original Legend of Zelda and Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! drew stern looks from the National Coalition on TV Violence in 1988. Think that's funny? It gets better.
The outcry against violence in video games began with the release of Death Race in 1976. Death Race was an arcade game that featured graphics which by today's standards wouldn't be fit for a calculator. Although the game advertised the fact that you would be mowing down monsters in your car, the little stick figures were mistaken for people by many, and there was considerable alarm over the fact that gravestones appeared over the dead. The game was taken off the shelves around the time it was profiled on 60 Minutes.
Defenders of the video game medium are quick to point out that every section of the entertainment industry has at one point been the scapegoat for parents who wonder why their kids beat each other up at school. Comic books, novels, television, and movies have all been subjects of outrage. What seems to make video games special is the advancing technology. Parents got upset about Death Race, then Punch Out!!, then Mortal Kombat, then Night Trap, then Doom, then Grand Theft Auto, and so on. Opponents of the industry say it's the interactive element that makes video games different, but again, the same thing goes for every bit of new media. Comic books are worse than regular books because they have pictures. Now that there are movies, these pictures are moving! That makes them different enough to warrant censorship, right? Issues with every other new media were resolved fairly quickly, at least, once everyone got used to it. As video games get more realistic, the issues re-emerge.
A rating system was first implemented for video games soon after Sub-Zero began ripping people's spines out in living rooms across the world. Spurred on by outraged parents everywhere, Senator Joe Lieberman gave the industry one year to come up with a solution. Solutions were already in place; SEGA was perhaps the first with their Videogame Rating Council. The council only rated games made for SEGA's consoles (Genesis, CD, Game Gear, etc) with the occasional PC title, the rating system was criticized for being too vague and lacked any explanation as to what the three ratings (General Audiences, MA-13, and MA-17) meant or which naughty things each game contained. At about the same time, The 3DO Company came up with the 3DO Rating System, which only rated games for the 3DO. It was better than SEGA's system in that it included specific detail about a game's content on the box. The Software Publishers Association created their own ratings system known as the Recreational Software Advisory Council, a system based on the research of Donald F. Roberts. The council would rate titles based on Violence, Sex, and Language using a four level system, the system was largely criticized for not providing enough detail and having obscure placement on game boxes. A more universal ratings system was needed, and so the Entertainment Software Rating Board was born. The ESRB has served us well, despite criticisms that they are too stingy with the Adults Only rating. With the board in place, Nintendo decided to stop censoring itself and let gamers decide which games they wanted to play based on the letter on the back of the box. It should also be noted that before the creation of the ESRB, Nintendo of America and Europe would not allow developers to make games for their consoles containing nudity, sexuality, profanity, blood, graphic or domestic violence, drugs, political messages or most religious symbols.