As the father of an avid gamer, I got curious when I learned the U.S. Supreme Court would kick the tires onCalifornia's ban on the sale of violent video games to kids.
But somehow, Monday's 7-2 decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association to overturn the law left me ambivalent.
California's law would have banned minors from buying or renting video games that depict the "killing, maiming, dismembering or sexual assaulting" of a human image and "appeals to deviant or morbid interest."
Justice Antonin Scalia argued even classic fairy tales such as "Hansel and Gretel," who dispatch the ravenous witch by roasting her in her oven, have violent streaks.
Yes, but even the most horrific images kids might conjure up of the hag's demise pales to the nihilistic carnage that video games vomit onto TV screens at 30 frames per second.
Consider a game such as Postal 2. As "The Postal Dude," players indulge in creative murdering. Explode victims' skulls with shotgun blasts. Incinerate 'em with an aerosol can and a cigarette lighter. Butcher them like a prized Angus into parts with a machete. Or relieve women of their heads by bashing them in the face with a shovel.
Add an exclamation point by urinating on your victims' corpses!
Now, don't me wrong. I've been known from time to time — with the kids safely tucked in — to take target practice on some video zombies.
And that's a fundamental point.
The $25 billion-dollar gaming industry knows its audience. And it's not the pimply-faced adolescent with the cracking voice. It's the middle-aged couch potato with a Zoloft prescription. Or so suggests a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which pegged the average American video gamer as 35 years old, rotund and likely depressed.
Which means we're not in Candyland anymore when it comes to gaming.
That's why better than seven in 10 adults in a 2010 Common Sense Media poll would welcome a ban on the sale of "ultraviolent or sexually violent" video games.
Ultimately, however, the high court ruled that states possess no "free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed."
In other words, the Supremes called parents out. As they should have. Truth is, there's a simple solution to the problem: Parents need to step up as censors.
And here's where my ambivalence bubbles up. Because parents understand the solution isn't really that simple. It flows into the raging confluence of responsible parenting and gratifying your kids.
Really, my beef isn't with games like Postal 2 or MadWorld or Bulletstorm. After all, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, similar to the Motion Picture Association of America, rates video games. Edgier fare gets tagged "M" for "Mature," and "AO" for "Adults Only."
If Tom the adult stomps home from work hacked off about his boss and finds hacksawing mutants therapeutic, that's his prerogative.
My guess is most conscientious parents don't allow their kids access to such wildly inappropriate stuff.
The real problem involves the near-vacuum of suitable titles for kids bordering on teen-dom.
Prepubescent boys often snort at "E," for "Everyone," games — largely a mixture of cutesy sports and driving games and Papa Smurf puzzle adventures. And many of the "T," for "Teen," games insanely ooze with the stripped-down themes of violence, profanity and sexual innuendo.
Too many Saturdays I've stood in stores with my son — weeks of allowance burning a hole in his pocket — locked in a head-shaking duel. He shakes off the "E" games I suggest; I reject his "cooler" choices. Sometimes we strike an uneasy compromise.
It's a sad commentary about our society that video game-makers assume teen-rated action games are duds unless studded with four-letter words or video vixens.
California's stab at regulation was a shot across the bow. The gaming industry won the battle. But it would be nice if game-makers realized the self-interest in giving parents a break. Beefing up the inventory of age-appropriate tweenage fare would be a nice start.
Otherwise, moms and dads may soon decide it's game over for their video fanatics. At least until they hit 35.
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