Teens can tell fantasy from reality

By Steve Chapman

Last week, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a bill banning the sale of violent or raunchy video games to minors, after a debate that reached its high point when one member said, “I am going to vote for this bill knowing it’s unconstitutional.”

Score a point for truth in government.

The Legislature was acting on a proposal from Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is alarmed that some games feature violence, criminality, profanity and nudity. He particularly objects to “Grand Theft Auto,” where players can supervise prostitutes and use rocket launchers to destroy police cars. His measure would make it illegal to rent or sell such fare to anyone under 18.

Even the governor acknowledges the state can’t forbid adults access to such material, which falls under the protection of the First Amendment. As it happens, the bulk of the sales and rentals are to people who are mature, at least in chronological terms. The Entertainment Software Association says the average player is 29 years old and the average buyer is 36.

No one doubts the government has a bit more leeway in deciding what material is available to youngsters, but this bill probably exceeds the permissible limits. Violent games, it says, are those in which “the player kills, seriously injures, or otherwise causes serious physical harm to another human,” which might encompass even comparatively tame James Bond-derived games.

As for sexual content, anything halfway racy is intolerable. Among the games singled out by Blagojevich is “Rumble Rose,” which has scantily clad women wrestling each other. Why does he care about this particular game? It doesn’t contain nudity or simulated sex — just “continuous panty and chest shots.” By that standard, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue would be off-limits to high-schoolers.

Another game is objectionable because it features “topless sack races.” Do we think a 17-year-old male is going to suffer psychological damage from the sight of bare-breasted bimbos in a goofy competition?

Beyond expressing disapproval, it’s hard to imagine what our lawmakers hope to accomplish. The supporters think violent games produce violent teens, but the evidence is lacking.

Between 1993 and 2002, when video games were exploding in popularity, the number of adolescents arrested for murder declined by 65 percent. Other types of juvenile crime are also down. On the sex front, unintended pregnancies among teenagers have dropped.

Then there is the constitutional issue. The exact meaning of the First Amendment in this context is murky, but several efforts like this have been overturned. When Indianapolis passed an ordinance prohibiting video parlors from letting youngsters play violent games, a federal appeals court struck it down.

Bills like this seek to restore the cultural environment of teens to an Edenic era of wholesome innocence. But when was that? Video games are just the latest form of entertainment accused of warping young people beyond repair — such as rap music lyrics in the 1980s and bloody movies and TV shows in the 1960s and 1970s.

Back in the 1950s, the root of all evil was comic books — yes, comic books. They were denounced in terms eerily similar to those being used today against video games. Some cities passed ordinances banning the sale of violent comic books to minors, as did the state of New York.
In 1955, a U.S. Senate subcommittee said comic books devoted to crime and horror amounted to instruction manuals in murder, robbery, rape “and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality and horror.” The 30 million crime and horror books published each year, the committee said, “evidence a common penchant for violent death in every form imaginable,” including “cannibalism, with monsters in human form feasting on human bodies, usually the bodies of scantily clad women.”

But not many juveniles of that era were spurred to cannibalism. Somehow the great majority of children of the 1950s learned to distinguish the realm of fantasy from the realm of reality, and today’s teens can do the same. So why can’t politicians?

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate. Contact him at: schapman@tribune.com