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Government Report 97: Impact on Game Developers
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Government Report 97: Impact on Game Developers

June 19, 1997 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

6) Clueless Interpretations

The Children's Impact Statement TM summaries consistently show that NIMF just doesn't get it.

For example, they give a very harsh rating to the critically acclaimed new TV show "King of the Hill" for portraying a "general cynical view of life." This could not be more wrong. King of the Hill shows have surprisingly uplifting, life-affirming endings. A recent episode ends with the usually stoic lead character in a tearful embrace with his wife, crying because he fully realizes that he needs to be more open to her in his life.King of the Hill's honesty and optimism outshines the artificial sentimentality of shows like "Father Knows Best."

The Simpsons TV show gets a full three scarlet lights for Character traits, but the violent 90's movie version of Romeo and Juliet gets mostly green lights because its characters are "respectful" and "caring." Oh, those caring Montagues and Capulets. I guess families whose vicious feuds drive their kids to suicide are better role models than the imperfect but deeply loving Marge and Homer Simpson. Or perhaps pretension counts for a lot here, since the NIMF coos that the brutal and sexy Romeo and Juliet movie is "an excellent introduction to Shakespeare for teens."

7) Misleading Premises

NIMF makes a barrage of claims that are at the very least misleading. They make blanket claims about "What media teaches kids," as if every work in every medium speaks with a single voice. NIMF says that what movies, TV, and computer games teach is "Gotta have it now," "Happiness equals having things," and "If it feels good, do it." (After the last election and the most recent defeat of Campaign Finance Reform, it's not the media, but Washington that is teaching "It's all about bucks, baby.")
The fact is that films, TV shows, and even computer games have many messages, do not "teach" a single monolithic, anti-social viewpoint. This is anti-art stereotyping, and stereotypes are something that the NIMF rating system was designed to condemn.

Unsupported Claims

NIMF claims that their survey shows that the NIMF "Children's Impact Statement's TM rating system is "valid, reliable, user-friendly, understandable and independent" and "effective in all categories." Having dispensed with the claim of effectiveness, let's look at those other superlatives.

1) Valid and Reliable

NIMF claims legitimacy for their views based on a scientific survey prepared by an objective third party polling firm, which found (surprise) that parents preferred the new NIMF rating system by 81%. Their Web site refers to a blizzard of "evaluation and report forms, validation studies, conclusions and recommendations, and a summary of overall findings from the survey, " but makes none of this wealth of data available on the Web site that makes the claims. The methodology is simply not revealed.

2) User-Friendly and Understandable

Its easy to get 88% of respondents to rate a system as "easy to understand" if pollsters take a lot of time and effort to personally and patiently explain its intricacies. But if this system is forced on the nation, there will be no such one-on-one attempt to clarify the complexities to each person.

3) Independent

Independent of whom? NIMF is clearly independent of the industries being rated, but is NIMF independent of secret censors with a political ax to grind?
What about the backers of NIMF? Who are they? What is their agenda? What else are they proposing? What economic and political benefits do they stand to gain if the government forces this on all media outlets? Another thing you won't find at the NIMF Web site is information on their funding sources.

Survey Says:


The NIMF survey raises more questions than answers.

1) What are the full results of the survey? NIMF reports that a whopping 94% of parents found the section on sexual content "valid," and 87% found the section on violence "valid." Compared to what? What instructions did they give for these subjective questions. What constitutes validity? (And why do they offer "validity" numbers for their sex and violence section, but no numbers for their highly dubious "Character" section. Could it be that the numbers are not quite so stratospheric?)
NIMF claims "There is no mystery here either. The evaluation forms and the process used will be open for all to see." Just not on the web site with the rest of the Children's Impact Statement TM material.

2) How much time did the polling firm spend with each family explaining the intricate details of the NIMF rating system? Will parents who do not have a one-on-one session with a pollster find it as "user-friendly?" It's easy to generate high poll numbers for ease of use for a system that is patiently explained in a one-on-one session with a patient pollster.

If this system is forced on all media outlets, is it realistic to expect that anyone will spend the same amount of time and effort explaining this unwieldy system to everyone in the nation?

3) How much does NIMF stand to profit if the government forces the Children's Impact Statement TM rating system on computer games, movies, TV programs, videos, etc.? (Yes, by now we've all noticed the tell-tale trademark sign at the end of the Children's Impact Statement TM.) How often do organizations seek trademarks for things they intend to give away free? At the very least, owning the rating system used by all media would bring NIMF a tremendous degree of power, and concentrate control over speech rights into the hands of very few.

4) Does the government know who owns and funds NIMF?

The NIMF Agenda

While the full NIMF agenda is still unclear, it is evident that they want a rating system imposed on all media-a system owned and operated by NIMF.
Just picture it- legions of NIMFs paid to slap their arbitrary and capricious ratings on everything. Every movie, TV show, video tape, and computer game. And then what? Radio shows? Music? Paintings? Theatre? Books? Internet talk? Soapbox speeches in the park?

I have criticized the current computer game rating systems, but they are vastly better than this pretender to the throne. The government would make a huge mistake if it bowed to NIMF's whims and forced the computer games industry to replace the current ratings system with a system as deeply flawed as the Children's Impact Statement TM.

The government is also making a mistake in accepting NIMF as an honest broker of objective surveys on the computer game rating system when the NIMF stands to benefit from finding "serious gaps" in our system.

Like judges and special prosecutors, watchdog groups MUST be free from any conflicts of interest. There must be no potential gain to the group from a finding of guilt (or a finding of "serious gaps in the system.")

NIMF can establish credibility as a watchdog group whose surveys are uncritically accepted by Congress. Or NIMF could establish credibility as a rival rating system developer competing for the lucrative job of assigning rating systems to all media. But they cannot credibly be both.

Unprecedented Concentration of Power

We may think that we have placated the Congressional censor squad with all our efforts on ratings, but this mixed report card and the Senators' chummy relationship with the shadowy NIMF is clear evidence that Congress is only getting started.

There's political gold in attacking those "dark, dirty, and dangerous" games, and zero political risk. This is a golden opportunity for any "family" watchdog group with a half-baked ratings system and a hidden agenda to jump in and collect some killer cash. This Congress has shown that it's not above Orwellian threats like "you must adopt a ratings system VOLUNTARILY or we will impose one on you."

Any plan to allow one group to control the ratings of all computer games, television shows, movies represents a concentration of power so massive and so intrusive that it is utterly unprecedented in American history. To invest this tremendous power in the hands of a cabal as secretive as the NIMF is dangerous.

What's to stop Congress from continuing to adopt NIMF's suspicious surveys as gospel truth? What's to stop Congress from imposing a new system on us? And what are we going to do to about it?

2) Will the Supreme Court Allow Net Censorship?

As the CGDC 97 Proceedings goes to press (and CD-ROM), the Supreme Court begins an epic case: the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Their decision will have profound results on the future of the Internet.

While we wait for the final word, here's a little history of the CDA. Congress crafted the Communications Decency Act as part of the sweeping Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. It applies old laws designed for TV and radio to the Internet, making it illegal to transmit "indecent" material over any electronic device. The indecency standard is the strictest moral regulation that has ever been imposed on any medium in the nation.

On Febuary 8, 1996, President Clinton signed into Act into law. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) immediately challenged it in court, and stopped it from going into effect. Opponents of the CDA launched a massive online (and offline) protest. All over the Net, pages turned black and sported blue ribbons in protest. Supporters tried a counter protest with white ribbons and green ribbons, but did not gain much support.

On June 12, 1996, the ACLU and their allies prevailed. A special three judge panel in Philadelphia struck down the Communications Decency Act (CDA) as unconstitutional and a violation of the constitutional guarantee of free speech. A federal court in New York also found the CDA unconstitutional. From there the case goes to the Supreme Court.

The Indecent Details

The CDA would have punished anyone who made available "indecent" or "patently offensive" material on the Internet with a $250,000 fine or two years in jail. "Indecent" is defined as anything depicting "sexual or excretory activities or organs." Those found guilty of having web sites dealing with family planning, AIDS, or human sexuality found themselves facing potential fines or even prison sentences.

The CDA was challenged by a group of strange bedfellows ranging from the ACLU to Internet-related businesses to librarians to individual Web surfers. Even human rights advocates weighed in, fearing that the CDA would take away one of their most potent tools: stirring the conscience of the world by posting graphic descriptions of actual atrocities on the Net. They called themselves the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition (CIEC), and they made the following argument:

* The CDA is so broadly drawn as to be unconstitutionally vague.

* The CDA does not meet the test of being the least intrusive solution, since there are many ways to protect children from objectionable materials that are far less restrictive to the rest of the Internet community. (Tools like SurfWatch, and the World Wide Web Consortium's new Platform for Internet Content Selection.)

* The CDA is inherently unenforceable since it is based on old laws for broadcasting and mail and old thinking about old technologies. The very structure of the Internet prevents the person posting the material from controlling the recipients.

The court agreed, and struck down the CDA in its entirety. They did not divide or issue a partial ruling. Following the long judicial tradition that extended free speech to movies (over the very same kinds of arguments), the court completely rejected the CDA. It also exhibited a keen understanding of the technology (which clearly eluded the Congressmen who drafted the bill) and an eloquence uncommon in judicial pronouncements.

"As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed," wrote federal judge Stewart Dalzell, "the Internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion. 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."

The CIEC lost no time in trumpeting the complete rejection of the CDA as "the Times versus Sullivan of cyberspace," referring to Supreme Court case that firmly established First Amendment protections for the press. The decision prevented public officials from winning libel suing except when they can prove "actual malice."

The backers of the bill lost no time in appealing the case to the Supreme Court, where it could be heard this fall. If they lose again, then it may "lead to the conclusion that Congress may not regulate indecency on the Internet at all," in the words of Judge Dalzell. Further, two of the three judges agreed that the Congress' standards of "indecency" may be too vague to carry constitutional weight. This would be a landmark ruling, and would prevent any censorship beyond the more narrow definition of "obscenity."

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