Congress May Mandate Video Game Warning Labels

Published April 1, 2009

A California Democrat and a Virginia Republican are pushing a bill in Congress to mandate warning labels on violent video games. But game industry officials and First Amendment experts decry the legislation—which equates playing video games with smoking cigarettes—and say the law would not survive a court challenge.

H.R. 231, sponsored by Reps. Joe Baca (D-CA) and Frank Wolf (R-VA), would require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to draft regulations for placing a warning label on any video game rated “T” (Teen) or higher by the Electronics Software Ratings Board.

The Video Game Health Labeling Act of 2009 specifies the label must read: “WARNING: Excessive exposure to violent video games and other violent media has been linked to aggressive behavior.” At press time, the bill was awaiting action in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Civil Libertarians Oppose Bill

Video game industry advocates and civil libertarians strongly oppose Baca’s bill. The Entertainment Consumers Association, a lobbying and advocacy group representing gamers, is launching an online grassroots campaign against the legislation.

“ECA believes that it is ultimately the right and responsibility of the parents to decide what is or is not appropriate for their households and to monitor the games their children play, in much the same way as they should for other media content such as books, comic books, movies, and music,” said the group’s director of government affairs, Jennifer Mercurio.

Attorney Lawrence Walters said the comparison between smoking cigarettes and playing video games is “completely invalid.”

“One is clearly established to cause death,” Walters said. “The other is protected speech.”

Courts Usually Wary

The courts have typically cast a wary eye on warning label mandates. A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel in February struck down a California video game law passed in 2005 that included a warning label provision. (See story on page 13.)

If the Baca bill becomes law it “wouldn’t have a prayer” of surviving a court challenge, Walters says, citing the Ninth Circuit decision and other precedents.

“It wouldn’t be the first time the government has tried to impose forced speech,” Walters said. “And it wouldn’t be the first time a court has ruled it unconstitutional.”

Disputing Violence Studies

Baca’s office pointed to scientific studies from the Pediatrics Journal, University of Indiana, University of Missouri, and Michigan State University suggesting “a neurological link between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior in children and teenagers.”

But the Ninth Circuit noted in its February ruling, “Nearly all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.”

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) writes from Rialto, California.