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[How does the government regulate video games? Researcher Clark looks worldwide for perspective on U.S. game censorship, addiction, and piracy law in an Obama administration.]
Video game regulation. The words leave a sour taste for most of the people who work with and play video games. The sour faces shouldn't be too surprising when politicians say things like, "I want to restore values so children are protected from a societal cesspool of filth, pornography, violence, sex and perversion," (Mitt Romney-R).
Most non-gamers, be they our friends, family members or elected officials, may not be jumping to dismiss games like Romney, but it's common enough that they don't quite get it.
Many see games as trifles, kid's stuff; and yet for all the talk that we journalists and researchers talk about breaking molds and making new genres of games, at the moment there's already a unique diversity and depth in today's video games. A fish doesn't know that he's in water.
While media technologies aren't cesspools, they are introducing radical new changes in the way society works -- from how we get our information, to how we interact with friends and co-workers.
Some games change society on a deeper level, placing, say, Chinese nationals in the same social spaces as American, French, and Israeli nationals. Government regulation fast becomes a dicey and complicated proposition. Why things are regulated certain ways, and what that says about the future, is far from simple.
"This is an area of law that's evolving so fast anything I say will be obsolete by tomorrow," says law professor Joshua Fairfield, half-joking.
Fairfield, an associate professor of law at Washington and Lee University, sees the legislation in the United States as falling into two major categories: one is protecting children, especially from pornography; the other deals with law enforcement and surveillance.
"There's an absolute imperative that we protect kids from predators. And, on the other hand, for at least the legal profession, we have to do this in a way that does not threaten free speech. Meeting these requirements means that we need to try a lot of laws on. You're going to see people experimenting with laws."
He uses the example of puzzle pieces, expecting many governments to try on new kinds of laws in order to see what fits.
In 1996, the United States had its first taste of that process with the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a part of the Telecommunications act of 1996.
It was held unconstitutional when it tried to ban the use of any interactive computer service trying to display to anyone under the age of 18, "any comment or suggestion found offensive by community standards."
Next to target Internet pornography was COPA, the Child Online Protection Act. It too was blocked from taking effect. Protecting children is, as Fairfield suggests, imperative. But doing so via large-scale measures is often beyond the understanding, if not also the power, of any regulating body.
"I don't think people [regulating content] are rabidly anti-game or pro-game," says Fairfield. "They don't understand games." Especially, he says, the problems inherent to user-generated content. One of the major problems with applying Congress's prior attempts to regulate the Internet to gaming, he says, is that, "These statutes were largely aimed at standard pornographers."
"Laws aimed at keeping children from seeing anything indecent fit poorly with rough-and-tumble virtual worlds. Your average Barrens chat might get you in trouble if a kid sees it, under current laws." Fairfield, referencing an area in Blizzard's World of Warcraft known for inane, sometimes perverse conversation, points out that any game going online presents anonymity to children and a license to be lewd to all.