"Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects." - Federal Judge Stewart Dalzell
From attempts to demonize computer games, force a government mandated ratings system on computer games, and censor the Internet to legislation designed to protect our games from piracy and enable new technology, the government exerts a profound but often invisible influence on our lives and our life's work. We have the power to influence the debate on these issues in our favor, but only if we're informed and know how to act.
Ever since the computer games business became big enough to attract real money, we've also attracted the attention of Washington. The past few years, our rapidly growing industry has been rocked by a barrage of Congressional hearings, new legislation, threats of new legislation, and landmark court cases.
It started with Congressional hearings into the "dangers" of computer games, and grew into threats of a government-designed and government-mandated rating system. Since then we've seen attempts to censor games, the Internet, and even e-mail. Some groups are lobbying Congress to force standards for new technology like DVD and HDTV without fully understanding the implications for computers. Congress is also on contemplating creating whole new classes of digital copyright protection laws and new cryptography laws. The coming years might see new government initiatives to spur research and development, and new initiatives to wire schools and libraries. Here are some of the issues facing our industry today:
1) Will Congress Force a New Rating System on Computer Games?
2) Will the Supreme Court Allow Net Censorship?
3) Will All Kids Get Computer and Internet Access?
4) Can We Stop Piracy?
5) Are Computer Games Eligible for R&D Credits?
6) Are Shrink-wrap Licenses Legal?
1) Will Congress Force a New Rating System on Computer Games?
Just when you thought we had dodged the government-mandated ratings bullet, Congress fired another broadside in their war against computer games.
Despite the computer games industry's near-universal adoption of a content-based rating system that is far more detailed, rigorous, and independent than those used by other industries, Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Senator Herbert Kohl (D-WI), and a group called the National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF), have issued a blistering critique and concluded that there are "serious gaps in the system."
They gave computer game makers an A for adopting a "voluntary" ratings system, but they peppered the rest of the report with Cs and Ds.
Senator Lieberman said "I am primarily troubled by the content of the games themselves. The fact is, too many games now on the market this holiday season are more violent, more antisocial and generally more disgusting than ever." He also said "These games are the 1990s equivalent of coal in a stocking-dark, dirty, and dangerous in the hands of young children."
Was the Senator expecting the ratings system to somehow make games less violent, or put more social values in games, or make the content of games more pleasant? The ratings system was intended to inform parents of the content of games, not force changes in content.
I Have Here In My Hand a List of Ten
The Senator's list of the "Ten Least Wanted Computer Games" included the RPG Daggerfall, which was listed as inappropriate for children due to violent content. What the Senator did NOT disclose was that Daggerfall publisher Bethesda Softworks not only included a prominent box logo warning that the game is for mature audiences, but went to the extra effort and expense of including parental lockout controls.
In response to their inclusion in the list, Bethesda Softworks slapped a libel and product disparagement lawsuit on the Senators and NIMF. (We'll keep you posted on the results.)
Conspicuously absent from the list were numerous games that contain far more graphic violence than Daggerfall. Rather than list the games with the most violence or mature content, the list contained only high-selling action titles. (Are the Senators seeking to punish success?)
In their latest offensive, the Senators relied heavily on the NIMF survey, which they have uncritically embraced. So who is the Senators' latest strange bedfellow, the NIMF? What do they stand for? What's their agenda? And on what basis are they judging us? Are they truly impartial, or do they have an agenda that could potentially color their findings?
I set out to investigate the NIMF survey, and I uncovered some revealing information.
NIMF purports to be "independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan, and nondenominational." But they don't claim to be independent of a future financial stake in game ratings biz. In fact, NIMF has developed a rating system of its own-a rating system they claim works with ALL forms of media.
NIMF claims their one-size-fits-all rating system, called the Children's Impact Statement TM, is superior to all current rating systems used on computer games, TV, and movies, etc. To bolster their claims, they offer more findings from their own survey. They conclude, not too surprisingly, that all current ratings systems are unacceptable, and a new rating system needs to be imposed on all media. The "independent" survey they commissioned found (also not surprisingly) that the rating system that deserved to be used on all media is the NIMF's own Children's Impact Statement TM.
So who owns and controls NIMF? I checked up on the organization through several sources, from their representatives to their Web site. When I called the organization for direct answers, the operator was cheerful and eager to answer. But before I asked any questions, I volunteered that I was preparing a story for the CGDA Report. She then refused to answer even basic questions, and hung up, saying that a PR person would have to call me back.
Eventually, a NIMF public relations person, Susan Eilertsen, called back. However, she spent most of our conversation asking questions about me, the CGDA, and my story.
I asked Mrs. Eilertsen who was funding the NIMF. She paused, then answered "a variety of health care foundations and individuals." When I asked for the specific names of health care foundations and individuals, she was silent. When pressed, she said that she was "not free to give that out."
I asked for specific information about the NIMF survey, and she again refused to answer. Finally, she said she would mail the press materials to me. I asked if that was the same press release that was on the NIMF Web site, and she said she did not know. She said that if I had any questions after receiving the press materials, I could call back. (I still have not received the press materials. If I get them by the next CGDA Report, I'll describe them them.)
Fortunately, the NIMF Web site (http://www.mediaandthefamily.org/) is far more forthcoming. The Web site reveals the names of the NIMF Board of Directors. It's composed mostly of doctors, but also has a public relations person, a child psychologist, a lawyer, a health care industry CEO, a TV producer (of a TV series called "Christy") and beloved TV host Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan.)
But the Web site is utterly silent about NIMF's owners and sources of funding.
The Children's Impact Statement TM Rating System
The NIMF Web site boasts that the rating system they want to impose on America took "many months" to develop, and uses a "carefully-designed methodology." They compare their rating system to nutrition labels, which have succeeded due to their clear delivery of objective information from a legitimate source. In contrast, I found the Children's Impact Statement TM system neither clear nor objective, and created by a source with a serious conflict of interest.
The Children's Impact Statement TM has ten rating categories in four groups, with three possible ranks per category: a green dot for "go," a yellow dot for "caution," and a red dot for "stop." (What about games or videos or books with black and white packaging? What are they supposed to do? Pay extra for color printing just to put the cutesey stoplight colors on their covers?)
The categories include:
Violence: amount, graphic, and glamorized
Language: vulgar and sexually explicit
Sexual Content: Nudity and Explicit
Character Traits: respectful, responsible, and caring
Bugs in the NIMF System
I found the NIMF rating system is ineffective for several reasons. Besides lacking context, it makes capricious judgments, useless distinctions, and blanket condemnations. It is condescending, clueless, and ultimately misleading.
1) Lack of Context
Many other content-based rating systems lack any sense of the context in which the content (violence, nudity, rough language, flawed character traits) appears, but this blind spot is particularly serious in the Children's Impact Statement TM.
For example, the universally praised Schindler's List would earn a red "stop" rating in every category of NIMF's Child Impact Statement TM. Yet this film is considered appropriate (even essential) viewing for children whose parents believe they are old enough to handle it. It's the textbook definition of "redeeming social value." Its recent television premiere was a huge success, and networks have made it clear they are taking it as indication that meaningful and worthwhile programming can flourish on broadcast TV.
Actually, Schindler's List is only 99.44% universally praised. One dissenting voice has popped up. As we go to press, Congressman Tom Coburn (R-OK) lashed out at the airing of the film as "an all-time low" in network programming. "Decent-minded individuals should be outraged," fumed the two-term Congressman, inexplicably reasoning that the grim Holocaust film would encourage the networks to air gratuitous sex and violence on TV. Since sixty five million American citizens tuned in to the three and a half hour movie, perhaps the Congressman thinks that one fourth of the nation's citizens are indecent-minded.
The context of the film is essential to understanding the content. The Congressman's lack of comprehension of the tremendous value of the film is very revealing. Even if we accept that the government has authority to pass judgment on creative works and constrain the exercise of free speech rights, is this kind of person that is qualified to do so?
2) Capricious Judgments
The Child Impact Statement TM ratings are capriciously bestowed and utterly inconsistent.
Final Doom gets three red stop lights for the Character Traits "respectful," "responsible," and "caring." But Star Trek: First Contact gets the best ratings- all green lights for its Character Traits. Apparently the genocidal Borg were properly respectful, responsible, and caring. (They took such good care of Data.) NIMF justifies the weaker rating because Star Trek's violence is "necessary to save humanity." Well, what do you think you're trying to do in Final Doom?
3) Useless Distinctions
The Child Impact Statement TM system obscures more that it clarifies by stamping the strongest possible condemnation on everything that has even a hint of violence.
The tame, hokey cartoon violence of the Power Rangers and Space Jam is given exactly the same violence rating as Doom, Mortal Kombat, and Natural Born Killers. They all get the harshest possible ratings: three red "stop" lights for amount of violence, graphic violence, and glamorized violence. (Did Bugs Bunny pull someone's spine out while I wasn't looking?) Tame Saturday morning action shows like Aladdin and Darkwing Duck fail almost as badly, with two red stop lights and one yellow caution Lights for violence.
Third Rock from the Sun gets a scarlet letter for sexually explicit language, giving it the ratings equivalency of the "The Seven Words You Can't Say On TV" or a dial-a-porn telephone line. "This show has many sexual innuendos [sic] and other comments," NIMF sniffs indignantly, apparently unaware that sexual innuendo is not the same as saying "you stupid &^*%*#^[email protected]$!"
NIMF claims that "like nutritional labels, Children's Impact Statement TM will provide all the information parents want and need."
But a ratings system that cannot distinguish between the violence level of the Power Rangers and the violence level of Pulp Fiction is a ratings system that is worse than useless to most people in the real world. These blurred distinctions are not only confusing, they're potentially dangerous to parents who make the mistake of relying on them.
4) Blanket Condemnations
By the Child Impact Statement TM system, Little Red Riding Hood would earn red stoplights for graphic violence, perhaps even for glamorized violence, as the child is encouraged to cheer when the wolf is chopped up and disemboweled by the hunter. Could it really earn green go lights for "respectful" and "caring" character traits when the wolf maliciously eats granny? Come to think of it, most of the fairy tales dear to children over the centuries would likely fail the Children's Impact Statement TM. Were all of our ancestors warped by these stories?
We need to remember that most stories in humanity's history require an antagonist, a villain, who, by definition, fails the "Character Traits" test. If all characters must be respectful, responsible, and caring, creative people don't really have much elbow room to create dramatic action.
If you want to see how far this blanket condemnation extends, try rating the Bible using this system. (NIMF has not.) "Thou shall smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword, but the women... shalt thou take unto thyself" (Deuteronomy 20: 13-14). Could that be glorifying violence? How could the Bible escape an unsuitable rating under this system?
5) Condescending Summaries
NIMF warns that the humor on the Simpsons is "complicated and subtle," and therefore "may confuse kids elementary age and younger." Since when are we shielding our kids from complication and subtlety? Complication and subtlety are the basis of critical thinking, which is what we're supposedly trying to teach them in elementary school. And since when are elementary age kids confused by the Simpsons? That's a demographic group that LOVES the Simpsons and finds the show very funny.
Perhaps the humor is too complicated for the children of bluenose prudes who have insulated their families from subtle humor that's not always fully "caring." How reassuring that such people are working with the government to make sure that the rest of us view all media through their eyes. (Note: the two preceding sentences contain humor that may be too complicated and subtle, and may confuse people into thinking that they are statements of fact.)
Myst (which got green lights in everything except one yellow light for not "caring" enough) earned a warning that the "moody music" may make the game "scary" for young children.
These condescending summaries show very little respect for the intellect and common sense of both children and parents.