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Bill Proposes Labeling Video Games Like Cigarettes

Gabe Rottman,
Legislative Counsel,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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March 26, 2012

Representatives Joe Baca (D-CA) and Frank Wolf (R-VA) introduced a deceptively simple bill last week that is totally unnecessary, potentially very harmful to Americans’ First Amendment rights and needlessly tries to play parent for millions of American kids.

The bill, designated H.R. 4204, would require every video game with a rating above “E-for-Everyone” from the Electronic Software Rating Board (or “ESRB”) to carry the ominous, tobacco-style admonition: “WARNING: Exposure to violent video games has been linked to aggressive behavior.”

Bad idea, for a couple of reasons.

First, the ESRB is a self-regulatory organization, meaning that the bill would have Congress taking a big step into world of video game ratings. This is novel, and would set a terrible precedent. The federal government doesn’t really rate any media. It doesn’t even control the ratings of movies. That’s all industry. (Now, industry rating systems raise other issues, but there’s no question that government interference is even worse.)

Second, the bill could chill the production, sale and use of video games generally, which are absolutely protected by the First Amendment and occupy a unique stall in the marketplace of ideas. Interactive media is increasingly important in this marketplace, especially with the rapid progress of technology and the amazing recent sophistication of the medium.

The Supreme Court said as much in its 2011 Entertainment Merchants Association case striking down a California law that purported to block the sale of violent video games to minors: “[l]ike the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world).”

Third, the bill is a solution in search of a problem. Any evidence of harm from exposure to video games is inconclusive, and no different than what you see with television, movies, music or other media. The ESRB rating system is almost humorously detailed, and provides ample guidance to parents. And, numerous studies show that playing video games actually improves problem solving and other skills.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, measures like the Baca-Wolf Bill—as with, for instance, proposed laws in the 1950s targeting comic books or federal indecency enforcement in the last decade—fundamentally interfere with the prerogatives and obligations of American parents.

Some in Congress like to think that the government can parent your kids. It can’t. American families have the responsibility to ensure that children receive the guidance they need when being exposed to mature content, but we should also have the freedom to trust our kids around this kind of material when we think they’re ready.

We just tweeted at Rep. Baca and Rep. Wolf to let them know that we think the bill is unnecessary and harmful to Americans’ First Amendment rights – please retweet to let them know that you agree!

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