Sons of Liberty: A Gamer's Right
After the most recent ruling on violence in video games, this controversial topic has taken a turn for the worse, at least for gamers and the industry. In late April, the IDSA (Interactive Digital Software Association) filed a lawsuit with the District Court of St. Louis County over certain game related legislation. The legislation makes it necessary, by law, that children under 17 have parental consent before buying games. This law was challenged by the IDSA, claiming it was unconstitutional. Senior U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh denied the appeal by the IDSA, stating that games "have no conveyance of ideas, expression, or anything that could possibly amount to speech. This court finds that video games have more in common with board games or sports than motion pictures." Most of you have probably heard about this already, but it's not the ruling that Judge Limbaugh made that is the problem, it is his reasoning behind that decision, because it poses an incredible threat to the gaming industry.
Judge Limbaugh made what is known as a precedence setting ruling. If not overturned, this ruling will be cited in future lawsuits involving video games. This will cause a lot of problems for groups who try to defend the industry, because they can no longer invoke the 1st amendment, which ensures our freedom of speech. I agree with his feelings that the law should be upheld and children under 17 should not play violent games without parental consent. However, I feel that his reasons behind his decision are both incorrect and irresponsible. This man's uninformed statements have the potential to become the biggest problem this industry has ever faced, because he has taken away the industry's right to free speech. This makes it legal to ban games that legislators feel to be too violent. If games are not protected as free speech, there is nothing to stop the government from banning the next Metal Gear or Grand Theft Auto game. To say that games have no conveyance of ideas or expression that resemble free speech is utter nonsense, as anyone who has played a Final Fantasy or Metal Gear game can attest to. Remember the heartbreaking scene of Aeris' death in Final Fantasy 7? Or the idea posed in Metal Gear Solid 2 that the Y2K incident was nothing but a farce perpetrated by the government to censor the flow of digital information? To say that those games, and others like them, are not speech is the farthest thing from the truth. To pass this type of law, or base decisions on such laws without being properly informed of both sides of the issue is not only wrong but also reprehensible. No one should pass judgement on this industry without first taking the time to inform themselves, which is exactly what Limbaugh did- he made a judgement without having all the facts.
However, he is not the only one at fault in this matter. Had the IDSA done a better job with its defense of the industry's rights, Limbaugh might not have made such a ruling, or his ruling might have been the same but for different reasons. Before making his decision, Limbaugh watched scenes from 4 different games, but did not play them, and found that they should not be afforded protection as free speech. That he only viewed four games, none of which had any plot or story to speak of, and that he didn't actually play the games is bad enough. What is worse though, is that the IDSA only offered some typed manuscripts from games, stating that they felt the industry did provide content that qualified as speech. Excuse me? Why they did not show any footage from games like Final Fantasy X, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2, etc. is beyond me. What I do know is that by offering nothing more than manuscripts, which Limbaugh refused to acknowledge as speech, the IDSA put together a shameful presentation at best. You cannot blame Limbaugh for his actions, thoughts or words if the IDSA did not make their best effort to inform him of the kind of content available in today's games. While it is certainly true that Limbaugh should have taken more time to inform himself on these issues, it was also the duty of the IDSA to present the material that would allow Limbaugh to do so. Since they failed to do that, it is possible that Limbaugh the logical yet incorrect assumption that content that qualifies as speech in games does not exist. While that is not true, the blame lies equally with both Judge Limbaugh and the IDSA. Hopefully, during appeal, they will try to rustle up a better defense and show the appellate court what gaming is all about. Games have undergone more changes over the past 20 years than any other form of entertainment, while their public perception has remained largely the same. The result is that most people not affiliated with the industry are completely unaware of what this industry now offers.
It is this ignorance, the lack of awareness of those in congress and the courts, which makes violence in games such a heated issue. If Joseph Lieberman or Stephen Limbaugh were as knowledgeable of this industry as most adult gamers like myself, they would certainly see things from a different perspective. A great example of this fundamental problem is a recent conversation I had with my father, which is what prompted me to write this editorial in the first place. In the middle of our chat, I spoke of this ruling by Judge Limbaugh, because I was angry about how older generations often feel threatened by things they don't understand. I said that games like Final Fantasy VIII or Metal Gear Solid have had more of an impact on me than any motion picture, that the wonderfully charismatic Metal Gear series has taught me about consequences of our actions. I said Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver showed me how anger can blind us to the truth, and that we need to always strive to see the bigger picture. After listening to me rant and rave with incredible patience, my father had this to say:
"If that is the case, then the video game industry is doing a terrible job promoting itself. People like me think that 99% of games are ultra violent. The industry needs to work harder to promote the quality of their products, because there is apparently a lot of misinformation out there."
After hanging up the phone, I turned on the TV, and started 'surfing the Net'. I tried to see the industry through his, or Limbaugh's or Lieberman's, eyes. I was shocked. Most of the ads were ultra violent, whether on the net or the TV. I began to realize that he was right in many ways. The commercials for GTA3 do nothing to promote the complexity or depth of that game, they just show John Doe on a killing spree, and there was much more to that game. Many adult gamers got to enjoy the subtle moral lessons that game incorporated into its bloody, brutal gameplay. I thought about the commercials for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, recalling that nothing of its wonderful plot was advertised, only violent gunplay. Sometimes it pays to listen to your elders, and I am glad I did, because I learned that this industry has a lot of growing up to do. If video games are ever to be seen as a mature industry, then it needs to be presented as one, and so far industry advocates have failed miserably in that regard. The people who create legislation governing games, as well as the ones who interpret those laws, need to be informed so that they can make appropriate and rational decisions, and the court ruling by Judge Limbaugh was neither.
However, it is not up to just the IDSA to make these changes, it is up to those of us in the media, the development companies that create games, and most importantly, you the gamer. You have rights, but you also have responsibilities, and you cannot complain about the loss of those rights if you abdicate your responsibility. It is up to you to inform those around you who do not play games about the truths behind them. If your teacher thinks all games are bloody shoot'em ups, give her an example of a game that has warmth and humor, or heartfelt emotion. If your father doesn't understand why you are so addicted to EverQuest, tell him. Don't just say 'it's cool'; tell him why it is cool. Write a letter to your local congressional representative and tell them how gaming has positively affected your life. Give them examples of positive lessons that gaming has taught you. I think you will find that if you adopt this approach, that not only will you be helping the industry, but that you will also realize that games have taught you more than you knew, and affected you in ways you never imagined. I have had several revelations just while writing this editorial. I learned that gaming means more to me than I was ever able to admit, and have subsequently rekindled my love of games. You owe it to your family, to your community, and most importantly to yourself to work at changing the negative image of this industry. We cannot just sit back while our freedoms are threatened; you have go out and fight for your rights. You can become a catalyst of change, a powerful advocate. You can become a Son of Liberty.
5/15/2002 Ryan Hartmann