GDC panel takes "hot coffee" break

Developer, academic, and legislator go head-to-head in panel designed to offer solutions to the "us" versus "them" debate on states' right to regulate game sales.


SAN JOSE, Calif.--Thursday afternoon saw an odd juxtaposition, rarely seen in the debate over violence in video games. Instead of a lone video game developer being questioned by an irate congressman, the panel instead turned into a lone California assemblyman being questioned by irate developers. Titled "Murder, Sex, and Censorship: The Morals of Creative Freedom," the panel was moderated by game designer turned professor Brenda Brathwaite and orchestrated to include multiple viewpoints.

Speaking for the academics was professor James Paul Gee, who has written multiple books on the effects of video games on learning, while program director of the International Game Developers Association Jason Della Roca represented developers.

But the focus of the panel was California state assemblyman Dr. Leland Yee, who represents the 12th district in that state and is currently Speaker pro Tem of the assembly.

Yee is perhaps best known for his introduction of California Assembly Bills 1792 and 1793, which restricted the sale of "ultraviolent" video games to minors.

Brathwaite started the talk off by discussing her intention in bringing this panel together and giving some of the history of legislation created to address "video game violence."

"In the last year, over a dozen bills targeting video games were put before state assemblies and senates throughout America. This panel brings together a developer, a politician, and an academic to try to represent the different viewpoints on the issue."

Each member then gave a short introductory speech, covering the issues that he found relevant to violence in video games. Professor Gee focused on the versatility of games, often overlooked in the debate over violence. "In public discussion, we ask when, where, and how games can be bad for you, but never whether they could be good for you. How can they can be used to improve our schools and what good can this technology do for our kids?"

Gee gave examples throughout history when new forms of media were viewed as a threat, reading a quote comparing The Hardy Boys series to "blowing your brains out."

Instead of criticizing an entire type of media, he said, people should realize that "video games are neither good nor bad for you, but [their value instead] depends on what you do with it, just like TV. The real issue is how do we teach parents what's in these games so they select good games for their children and select the right games."

Assemblyman Yee gave a much shorter introduction, focusing on the bills he sponsored banning "ultraviolent" video games. While the courts blocked the laws on First Amendment grounds, he said he was still confident that the injunctions would be overruled on appeal.

Finally, Della Roca was the last to give an introduction, asking if the legislation under consideration was misdirected. "[These efforts] abdicate the responsibility even further from the parents, since they rely on politicians to figure out which games are appropriate or not. Defending lawsuits and injunctions are costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars."

He also criticized politicians for their lack of understanding of the game industry. "Politicians don't play games. They don't consider the possibility that video games are art, that they should be considered the same way as movies. Politicians would watch movies before passing judgment but treat video games as entertainment for the kids."

These laws have consequences beyond children, said Della Roca. "[People] feel ashamed to be video game developers, since they've been blacklisted by the media at large. It devalues the creative power of the workforce, the passion that goes into creating these games."

After these initial statements, Brathwaite opened the panel up for questions from the audience. Not surprisingly, without exception every question was directed toward Dr. Yee, although all the panelists contributed their views.

The first question was whether legislation prohibiting the sale of video games to minors was even necessary. Dr. Yee responded, "We as a society have a responsibility to protect our children. When we have inappropriate material with harmful effects to children, then the state has a responsibility to protect them. Video games teach the piecemeal behavior of how to hurt individuals and mastering those behaviors. This is what that technology does, similar to how the military and police use it for training."

Della Roca immediately disagreed, saying, "The military uses games for teamwork, strategy. It has nothing to do with desensitizing people to killing." In addition, he argued that "singling out games doesn't make any sense. Media is so pervasive that trying to block any single one is futile in many ways."

Another question involved the impartiality of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, given that it's funded by the game companies whose software it rates. Dr. Yee explained how he felt that the practice of game companies funding the ESRB was similar to constituents funding his campaign and expecting him to do them favors.

At times, the questioning became heated. Arguing about whether studies have shown that video games cause violence segued into a discussion on a similar link between smoking and cancer. Dr. Yee argued that these studies are similar to ones done on smoking, in that there's no scientific data showing that smoking causes cancer. Instead, all they "have is correlational data where if you find people who smoke, you find people who get cancer."

While various audience members shouted Yee down, Gee responded, "The amount of research we have for video games is dwarfed by smoking. The smoking issue has been settled, the video game one hasn't been."

Della Roca also expressed his incredulity about these studies, at which point Dr. Yee lost his temper as well, responding, "Jesus, those studies are why we banned smoking!"

Yet even though the audience had sharp questions for the assemblyman, many also had words of praise, thanking him for coming out to the conference to face developers. Brathwaite also thanked Dr. Yee, saying that out of all the politicians she invited, including Senator Lieberman, he was the only one that accepted.

In the end, perhaps the best summation of the panel was a quote from Brathwaite in the beginning. "We all want age appropriate content. We just disagree on whether legislation is necessary."

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