AIAS President Emeritus Joseph Olin on Video Games’ Supreme Court Case

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Do you see a contradiction in Schwarzenegger being attached to this legislation, given that his entertainment career was predicated on hyper-violent entertainment?

Yes, I do. He’s been the lead in lots of films with violence that’s no ifferent thatn what’s found in games. With this bill and the supposed violent video game issue, he doesn’t necessarily gain anything politically in the short term, either, because he’s not up for election. It’s hard to fathom his motivation. Yes, he can run for the Senate in another six years assuming he has any political currency but that’s a ways off.

Nevertheless, he is certainly gravitated towards the issue. He has always supported this bill, going back to when Yee first brought it the assembly. So, there’s a big contradiction. Arnold was paid handsomely, to say the least, for his portrayal as the Terminator, let alone all of his other violent movies, even the forgettable ones like Eraser.

Yeah. Total Recall is not a walk through the park.

There were only 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 people that he killed in 90 minutes. [Laughs]

Part of the problem with the regulatory debate is the fact that the Entertainment Software Rating Board already exists. It labels every game release with the age range it’s appropriate for, and Everyone (E), Teen (T) or Mature (M) are the most common categories. But, pro-regulation advocates have said that the ESRB is a paper tiger that can’t really stop minors from getting at stuff that they probably shouldn’t be playing. What would you say to the people who criticize the systems that are already in place to regulate content?

Well, I think that the best systems to regulate content are in the homes of people across America. Full stop. That’s it. Don’t blame content creators or artists because some parents shirk their responsibilities or are just disinterested.

But even so, the ESRB provides a baseline of description and so much guidance that even the most ignorant of consumers can at least say, “Oh, I’m about to buy a game that says ‘M’ on it for my seven-year-old!” From there, they should be able to caution themselves accordingly. The ESRB does this for all sorts of games, just about any of the games that are marketed at retail. So, for parents who ignore the warnings, the fact that they elect not to heed them is their right. It doesn’t diminish the point that that guidance does, in fact, exist. If I think that my 12-year-old is mature enough, I’ll let him play Red Dead Redemption, but that’s my choice as a parent. And I think that the ESRB still doesn’t get enough credit within the legislative halls, as being a very strong benchmark for the types of content that’s available. And it should just be that–a benchmark. It should not be the recommending body as to what’s safe or what isn’t safe, because that’s such an impossible moving target.

Yeah, it’s a subjective judgment as to what’s okay for which person. But, because M-rated games are in the crosshairs of that bill, do you think we might see that whole category of experiences disappear all together if the law gets upheld?

Well, I don’t think it will disappear. I think the market may bifurcate to the point where the things that you find on display at retail are going to be the E, E+ categories and maybe a few key releases. For everything else, it’s going to be like porn. It’s going to be under lock and key behind a curtain someplace. And you’re going to have to show your ID. Otherwise, it will get moved to the Web where you can lie discretely about what your age is.

That seems to me to be a far more porous system than having some gate-keeping at retail or in the distribution process, as it currently stands.

Exactly. If you want to play a promotion on the Budweiser site for their NFL program, the first thing they ask you when you get to the splash, of course, is to state your age. I don’t know anyone over the age of 10 who doesn’t know how to figure out how to be 21.

Yeah, that’s very true.

So I don’t think that’s the answer. I think that the immediate effect is going to be a lot of independent studios choosing to be very cautious and the funding parties–whether they’re publishers or independent financial arms–will really caution themselves about sponsoring M-rated games, or even  T-rated games.

Most times, game development studios are looking for funding commitments with a paper document or some sort of light playable prototype before the really significant dollars get spent. But ultimately, you’re not going to know what the rating is until long after the thing is done. When you submit it to the ESRB, they actually have their people play through it and then you get your rating

And, depending on what you get, your whole marketing plan–and the fate of the project essentially–could be screwed.

Right. The ESRB does a very good job of providing what I’d call it usable feedback to publishers and developers as far as what they find in a game. Developers can know why they gave this game the rating of an M as opposed to a T.

The ESRB just literally slots game releases between levels of violence, and then ranks them as to what’s acceptable or not acceptable between the rating bands. There’s never a wholesale judgment that says that it’s unacceptable as a form of content. The labels are a form of guidance, not a referendum on the appropriateness of the experience a game provides.

Even if Yee and his camp had their way, it’s tough to even imagine that a federal or state body could tasked to judge appropriateness.

Right. But here’s where we run up against the fallacious positions of people against games, because there’s not a successful compelling precedent for the government policing content. The Motion Picture Association of America under Jack Valenti started their ratings system to avoid direct government intervention. And the government was wisely not really interested in being a ratings board, so this was the happy medium. As a result, it’s very difficult to get around the Motion Picture Association of America, and to find anyone who will display a film to consumers that isn’t rated by the MPAA. In the same way, it’s very difficult to find a retailer who will take a box that doesn’t have the ESRB ratings on it. Self-policing works.

The bst example is probably when the Hot Coffee scandal broke in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The game temporarily had the Adults Only (AO) rating and big box retailers like Wal-Mart would not carry the game. But, with a court decision being handed down, it seems like that’s another potential repercussion of the case would be a kind of tacit stamp that renders the whole video game medium as acceptable or not. Can you talk a little bit more about what could happen?

I don’t know that culture is going to change. The people who have pre-ordered five million copies of Call of Duty: Black Ops, and the million-plus people who are playing Medal of Honor right now, I don’t think they’re going to all of sudden not ever want to play a game that is intrinsically violent by virtue of its storyline or game mechanics. If games are banned outright, all these people would basically be playing the same games that they have right now online until the servers melted. So, I think that what potentially can happen is that people will be more selective in terms of the concepts.

But, there’s only a market for M-rated games because consumers want that. In television, I personally don’t think much of Two and a Half Men as a form of entertainment. But, I get the fact that 20 million Americans watch it every week, which is scary. Still, I can appreciate Jackass 3D. Those were all the things that I thought about doing when I was like 12. They’re just hysterical. They really are. Do I think that’s great quality entertainment? No. Is it a fabulous use of film as an artistic medium? No. Likewise, there’s no shortage of examples of games that aren’t cultural expressions of the highest order. But that’s all right, because you have things like Mass Effect 2 or Heavy Rain that really stretch what the medium can deliver to a consumer as an experience.

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