Twenty years ago, there were very few video games on the market. There were the successors of the very first video game, Pong. Atari was the game console of choice for most gamers of the day.
There was no need for game ratings. Pac Man and Asteroids were neither violent nor explicitly sexual.
Today, the gaming market is huge. There are hundreds of game titles available for several competing platforms. And some of those game titles were not designed for children. Young adults are one of the target demographics for video games these days.
A few years ago, the video game industry, under pressure from Congress and consumer watchdog groups, introduced a rating system, similar to that used for motion pictures. Some games are intended primarily for teens; others are geared toward younger kids and family entertainment.
But many games have a rating of M for mature audiences. These games are not supposed to be played by anyone under 17 years of age.
But there are no laws on the books that prohibit stores from selling M-rated games to kids. It’s supposed to be a voluntary restriction.
So State Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Ellettsville, said Friday that she was prepared to introduce legislation in the upcoming session of the Indiana General Assembly that would compel retailers to follow the rating guidelines. Stores would be prohibited from selling games containing an M rating to anyone under age 17.
Earlier last month, Sen. Evan Bayh said he would introduce federal legislation that would prohibit stores from selling M-rated games to those under 17 unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian at the time of purchase. Bayh said studies indicate that violent video games lead some children to exhibit more aggressive behavior.
It is not clear that playing violent games causes violent behavior in kids. But some of the games are clearly not suitable for young children. They depict graphic violence and illegal activity such as rape, car theft, drug use, and the shooting of police officers.
And today’s video games have superior graphics, which make the action look fairly authentic. The graphics are much more realistic than the cartoon-like figures that inhabited early video games. In modern video games, the blood looks real, and so do the open wounds.
Some states already have laws on the books that restrict the sale of M-rated games. But courts have also struck down such restrictions in some places, including Indianapolis. A federal judge recently placed a temporary injunction on a new Michigan law restricting the sale or rental of violent video games to minors.
Simpson said she wasn’t trying to change age restrictions or ratings. She just wants the current rating system to be enforced. The bill she plans to introduce would simply put teeth into the rating system by forcing retailers to comply.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., are backing Bayh’s proposal for federal legislation.
Ideally, it should be up to parents to monitor their kids gaming behavior. They need to pay attention to game ratings, which are clearly marked on the packages.
But it isn’t an ideal world, and sometimes even well-meaning parents fail to catch what’s on their children’s video screens. A law such as the one proposed by Simpson would make it more difficult for kids to buy or rent games that are not designed for them.