Sunday, December 26, 2010

Discussing the EMA Case with Senator Leland Yee

On Sunday, December 19th, my good friends Sean Patrick and Devan Patel, along with myself, had coffee with Senator Leland Yee. Yee was the author of the controversial ABs 1792 and 1793, which attempted to governmentally regulate the sale of mature games to minors. The bills were deemed unconstitutional by the State Court in 2005, and their constitutionality was again discussed in a November 2 U.S. Supreme Court meeting. I wrote an open-letter to the Senator with my particular objections to the bill, for which the meeting was called to discuss.

After spending a short time watching Sean play Obsidian's Alpha Protocol, we walked down to Starbucks to meet with the Senator and his aide. We introduced ourselves as Juniors from Stuart Hall High School and talked about our relationship with gaming (Devan and Sean being consumers and me being a writer and artist). 

Yee, a developmental psychologist, began the meeting by discussing the “Bobo Doll Study” regarding youth aggression, in which children emulated an adult model violently abusing a human doll. It is common knowledge among the psychological community that exposure to violent imagery causes desensitization to violence. The Senator thus did not contend that there was a causal relationship between game-consumption and real-world violence, a position that I strongly object to. Several notable anti-game critics have held considerably more theatrical viewpoints on the matter, Jack Thompson and Hillary Clinton come to mind, such people have recognized Grand Theft Auto to be a public safety hazard. Yee thus held that the desensitizing effect of game justified the bill.

The Senator also held that it was the state's responsibility to protect children from harmful forces, likening his bill to laws passed in the early 20th Century outlawing child labor. Whether or not the desensitizing effect of violent games would be on the level of the atrocities that child coal-miners faced in the Industrial Revolution is debatable. Furthermore, he again acknowledged that games did not pose a public safety hazard, if this was so, then why would the law be necessary to protect children? Is psychological desensitization enough to justify the distinct treatment of violent games to violent film, comics and literature?

Yee also emphasized the distinction between what he considered “violent games” and “ultraviolent games”. Nonetheless, the disparity remained extremely vague. I brought up Sony Santa Monica's God of War III, a game so graphically violent that even I recoiled at the gore. Yee responded by saying that God of War III would not be affected by the bill because the subject of its violence was not human in nature, “creature violence” did not fall under the bill. Apparently, the genocide of thousands of harpies and minotaurs did not deserve recognition.

Senator Yee stated that the “ultraviolent” games that would be affected by the bill depicted violence between human characters in a patently offensive manner. While Gears of War would not be considered “ultraviolent”, considerably tamer games would be. Nonetheless, the distinction remains extremely vague. The T-rated Uncharted and Goldeneye feature shooting human enemies as their primary mechanic. Over the course of their respective campaigns, the player kills hundreds of pirates and terrorists. Nonetheless, the relatively innocuous nature of such violence is on a level infinitely lower than that of Manhunt and Soldier of Fortune, which feature human dismemberment as an option. Under the law, would Goldeneye fall under the same group as the far more disturbing Soldier of Fortune? T-rated games feature human violence as a primary mechanic, and under the bill's verbiage, such games would be grouped with the likes of Postal, even while sci-fi/fantasy games like Halo are not affected.

The Senator also held that the bill was ultimately intended to assist parents in determining what content their children can access and that parents can choose to opt out of the policy by purchasing violent games for children, thus, pre-informing parents about content. Thus, the bill would reinforce the measures that the industry already takes in order to police its own content. Built-in parental controls by console manufacturers, the ESRB, ID check at retail and the refusal of console companies to license AO rated games are such measures. By governmentally reinforcing the industry's standards, notable risks arise given the degree of power the state gains over it. This ultimately makes the bill redundant to the industry's already held policies, rendering it a rather unnecessary exercise of political power over content advisory and the medium itself.

Senator Yee then asked us about our own gaming habits and the degree of parental control that our families had over our play decisions. Despite our dissenting viewpoints, the meeting was ultimately respectful, interesting and productive.

Upon the conclusion of the meeting, we returned to Sean's house to celebrate the merit of games by playing many matches of Call of Duty: Black Ops. I came out with mostly negative spreads, but found respite in the AK74u, stun grenade and claymore. Devan and myself were involved in an epic tug-of-war over the central control point in Nuketown. 

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