Debate Forum Left 11/10/10

Plugging the Leak

By Benjamin Tomkins

Benjamin Tomkins

Both the video game industry and the film industry have robust, independent review boards that apply ratings to their respective media.  Video games have the Entertainment Software Review Board (ESRB), and movies have the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).  Both organizations operate on a strictly voluntary basis, because producers of either genre realize that it’s in everyone’s best interest to inform the public ahead of time if there might be something objectionable to certain people in their product.  Seriously, nobody wants to get yelled at by an irate mother of seven because she thought Basic Instinct 2 was a nature documentary, even if she is appallingly naïve and stupid.  Overall, it’s better for the continuation of this precarious balancing act we call civilization that we extend the courtesy of telling people that the following exhibition features a picture of the artist with a bullwhip in his butt, because if you don’t, the next thing going in there will be your head.

Now before we start talking about the California legislature’s cranial geography, I want to quickly make the point that video games are definitely a form of speech just like movies.  The main difference is that, in video games, the player makes up some of the story along the way.  However, that doesn’t mean video games don’t have plot.  Even something as insipid as Pong has a narrative, albeit an incredibly boring one.  Bounce, bounce, bounce, point, win, haha you suck.  That’s a short and crappy film, but so was Jurassic Park 3 and nobody gave me my money back.  Look, I’ve been to improv shows where almost all the material is generated by the audience, and if any industry demonstrates our commitment to tolerating awful speech, it’s live sketch comedy.   At least in Postal 2 you can piss on the idiot clowns who annoy you.

But seriously, if both the film and video game industries are regulating their content in similar ways, why isn’t the movie industry involved in this lawsuit?  The answer is simple:  enforcement.  The MPAA works in conjunction with the National Association of Theater Owners (strangely, NATO) to police the rating system on the ground level.  Production companies voluntarily submit their movies to the MPAA for a rating, and NATO agrees that theaters will voluntarily stop 8-year-old boys from seeing NC-17 movies.  That’s the problem with ESRB.  The video game industry is relatively new, and it simply doesn’t have a merchant association to enforce the ratings.  So it would seem the solution to this problem is pretty clear.  ESRB is stuck with a giant bullwhip in their fanny and they need an organization like NATO to pull it out.  In steps the state of California.  They pull out the bullwhip…and shove it in their head.

I guess I wouldn’t be so annoyed if Hollywood weren’t in California.  It took me precisely two phone calls lasting a total of 6 minutes and 23 seconds to figure out why a government takeover of a rating system was a terrible idea with disturbing social implications.  My first call went to the MPAA, and they directed me to Patrick Corcoran at NATO.  Patrick explained to me that the problem with California’s law is that it completely defeats the purpose of a rating system.  See, the operative word here is “voluntary.”  If you know that you could be fined if a 16-year-old is accidentally admitted to an R-rated movie, there’s no incentive for a production company to agree to have the MPAA rate their films in the first place.  No rating, no problem.  Besides, what happens if the government decides it disagrees with the MPAA rating and fines you anyway?  Think of the NFL and this recent hard tackle nonsense.  You make a legal hit, and still get punished.  Why bother having rules?  One way or another, you end up at the same conclusion the state of California came to in regards to video games, which is that the government has to create their own rating panel.


We’re going to run a little thought experiment here.  I’m going to write a sentence, and I want you to take 30 seconds and think of every possible ramification that sentence might have.  Ready?  30 seconds:

“Our government has a legal mandate to create panels for the purpose of reviewing, controlling, and censoring media content, and enact appropriate criminal penalties.”

I’m scared.  Like, 1984 scared.  It’s bad enough that California would do this with such a good working model at their disposal, but can anyone seriously wonder why their state is in so much financial trouble?  They’re on the verge of bankruptcy, and their solution to this problem is to expand their government and waste millions of dollars on lawsuits and future criminal proceedings.  The air is fresher on the outside, fellas…

Benjamin Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, CO.  He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue.

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