Video games are the perfect scapegoat. Old people are scared of them, and young people will defend them with a fervor that's borderline violent. When the media and politicians need something to blame for national tragedies, video games are often the first thing they turn to. Now one politician is attempting to restrict the sale of violent video games yet again.
The Hill reports that Rep. Jim Matheson has introduced a bill this week that would restrict the sale of video games in more ways than one. The bill, called H.R. 287, would make it a crime to "sell or rent a video game that does not contain a rating label, in a clear conspicuous location on the outside of the packaging of the video game, containing an age-based content rating determined by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board."
What Rep. Matheson is saying here is that he wants to make the distribution of unrated games illegal. But wait, it gets better. He wants to make it a crime to sell a game rated "M" to anybody under the age of 17, or a game rated "AO" to anybody under the age of 18. The bill would also require all retailers to list an FTC notice about the ESRB content-rating system because stores don't already have ESRB posters everywhere.
In Rep. Matheson's defense, a lot of these would be decent suggestions if they weren't already in place. Sure, the ESRB is voluntary, but every major games retailer, publisher and console manufacturer enforces it. Hell, a game can't be released on any of the major home video game consoles unless it has a rating from the ESRB.
The only thing this bill would really hurt is PC and mobile games. Indie titles sold on Steam, iOS and other digital platforms don't have ESRB ratings. This bill would require they get a rating before being allowed on Steam or other services. Speaking of digital services, how can you even enforce an age requirement rule online?
Of course, Rep. Matheson's bill won't make it anywhere, just like every bill that has targeted video games before it. The Supreme Court even ruled on it in 2011 by saying that video games are a protected form of speech, just like film, music and literature.
Look, some video games are awfully violent, and children should not be playing them. Retailers do a respectable job of not selling these games to children unless a parent is present. In my experience, however, it's the parent who completely ignores the ESRB rating and buys whatever their kid wants.
If we must start a national dialog on video games violence (again), maybe we should start asking parents to get more involved in their child's entertainment options. Only a parent knows when their child is ready to experience the digital battlefields of Call of Duty and the like. The ESRB can only serve as a guide in this task, and was never intended to be a federal mandate ruled over by the FTC. Let's keep it that way.