Let Parents Regulate Kids’ Video Games

Published October 1, 2007

In August, a U.S. District Court judge in San Jose ruled parents should be the ones regulating children’s use of video games, overturning a 2005 California law intended to block the sale of “violent” video games to those under 18 and impose steep fines on retailers who failed to comply. (See story, page 6.)

Sponsors of the law expressed outrage, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) said he would appeal the decision.

Regardless of what one may think of the law, the governor is wasting his time–and Californians’ tax dollars–in seeking a more hospitable court somewhere else. Over the past six years, every state or local attempt to regulate the sale of video games based on their content has been struck down as unconstitutional.

Eleven different courts have uniformly ruled video games are protected by the First Amendment and that government regulation is impermissible because parents have alternative ways to deal with underage access to potentially objectionable games. Those methods include the industry’s private rating and labeling system, third-party ratings and advice, and console-based parental controls.

When used by parents, these methods can be quite effective.

Ratings Rank Among Best

In my recent book, Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods, I examined all the tools and rating systems available for every type of medium and concluded that, although it is the newest of all content rating and labeling schemes, the video game industry’s system is in many ways the most sophisticated, descriptive, and effective one ever devised by any major media sector in America.

The industry’s self-regulatory labeling body, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), places ratings and more than 30 possible content descriptors on almost every game sold in America today. These ratings and descriptors are remarkably detailed and displayed prominently on every game carton.

If parents don’t want their kids playing games that contain a specific type of content, a quick glance at the back of any game box provides them with plenty of information to make decisions. In addition, independent rating and review organizations such as CommonSenseMedia.org and GamerDad.com supplement the industry’s official rating and labeling efforts.

Consoles Offer Controls

New video game consoles also offer extensive, sophisticated parental controls allowing parents to screen out any game rated over a certain ESRB level. If a child comes into possession of a game the parent would be unwilling to buy, it can’t be played on a Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo system.

Consoles can also block online gaming, chat, and purchases.

Legislators also should not discount the “power of the purse.” With most new video games costing between $40 and $60, adults are usually present when games are purchased. Market surveys have shown the average age of a video game purchaser is 37. When a minor is involved in a sale or rental, a parent is present 92 percent of the time.

Surveys also reveal 89 percent of American parents of children who play video games are aware of the ESRB ratings and 85 percent of parents consult the ratings regularly when buying games for their families.

Thanks to all these measures and resources, parents have a great amount of control over what their kids can buy and play.

Education, Not Regulation

There are some constitutionally allowed steps lawmakers could take to help parents monitor their children’s use of video games. Education–not regulation–must be the focus of such legislative efforts.

For example, instead of squandering millions of dollars litigating regulations through the courts, a state could plow that money into public awareness efforts. Although the industry and game retailers already do an admirable job displaying rating and descriptor information on games and in stores, there’s no reason governments couldn’t supplement those efforts with additional materials such as posters, brochures, and Web sites.

Lawmakers could work with the game industry to develop public service announcements that inform parents of the game ratings and console controls at their disposal, and explain how to use them.

More efforts like those would be welcome. More laws and litigation, by contrast, won’t do anything to help parents or kids. Lawmakers should focus on empowering parents, not regulators.

Adam Thierer ([email protected]) is senior fellow and director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at the Progress & Freedom Foundation (http://www.pff.org).

For more information …

Adam Thierer, Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods, Version 2.2, Progress & Freedom Foundation, August 2007: http://www.pff.org/parentalcontrols/