California Assemblymember Leland Yee has a long political reputation for being extremely responsive to those living in his district. Holding a PhD in child psychology, his legislative efforts are often family-oriented and child-protective. He has passed a bill that mandates medical records be available to patients in their native language, and another which allows foster parents to adminster medical, life-saving injections to their foster children. To game developers, however, he's better known for AB 1179 -- a proposition that many developers view as restricting their medium.
Yee spoke on a panel at the 2006 Game Developers Conference: “Murder, Sex and Censorship: Debating the Morals of Creative Freedom.” According to Brenda Brathwaite (game designer, professor, and panel moderator), although a large number of political figures, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, were invited to speak at GDC, Dr. Yee was the only one who agreed to participate in the discussion.
Rounding out the panel were prominent linguist and education-and-games proponent Dr. James Paul Gee (University of Wisconsin at Madison) and Jason Della Rocca of the IGDA.
The discussion remained relatively professional and orderly in the first half of the session, but grew more heated once audience members were given the opportunity to ask questions--though some used the opportunity to sound off against the politician, stemming the on-stage dialogue and instead placing pressure on only Yee to respond.
Each panelist holds a very different stance on the subject of violent video games, which they shared in their opening statements. Yee, whose bill has made it illegal for vendors to sell “ultra-violent” video games to minors in California as well as mandate the type of informative signs that are displayed around video game retail shelves, holds firm that interactive video games that simulate real-world illegal actions (such as urinating on a dead body or decapitating a human) can be harmful to minors who play them due to the unique interactive nature of video games.
Della Rocca is against political interference on the game industry, holding that games should be treated as any other entertainment medium, such as literature or film.
Gee, in a hopeful turn of opinions, advocates that researchers, game developers, and politicians alike should focus their energy and money at finding ways in which games can be useful, educational, or just plain good.
“We all agree with each other that we don't want 'M'-rated video games handed out with lunch boxes,” said Brathwaite, uniting the panel early on in the session. “We're here to discuss the issues and find some common ground, to talk about what does this legislation mean for game developers.”
But Gee, easily the most positive of the panelists, resisted talking too much about politics, spending more time explaining how the issues can be approached differently. “I'm a person who has argued that playing video games in the right context and the right way can be good for you,” he said. “In the public discussion, we talk about when, where and how they can be bad for you, but no time talking about what good they can do.” When politicians and the media discuss game legislation, he said, there's a lack of discussion about how legislators can bring the positive effects of games into schools.
“How many people do you think have been hurt by video games? How many people have been helped by video games?” Gee asked. “This technology will allow us to have a full spectrum chemist, or a full spectrum virus,” which school children, scientists, or doctors are able to experiment with in a safe environment. Gee also noted that, socially, legislators should care not only about keeping children from harm, but also about helping them.
“Every time you deal with the media, you're asked: ‘Are video games good for you or bad for you?' And the answer is neither. It depends what you do with them,” Gee said, relating the example of televion and whether children are active or passive watchers.
Yee, on the other hand, tried to explain to the developers in the audience that his bill only targets a small subset of games on the market, calling it “very narrowly targeted.”
“Basically, the bill I was able to pass... limits the sale of ultra-violent video games to children. It does not prevent the sale of video games,” Yee said.
Della Rocca, who was surprised by a fairly strong turnout at the session, said, “The ironic thing is that at this very moment Eric Zimmerman is running his Game Design Challenge on the Nobel Peace Prize,” which pits developers in a race to create a theoretical game that would, in this case, literally change the state of the world for the better.
Della Rocca, who said he has actually grappled with the issue of how the game industry is or should be under governmental control, queried, “At the same time, I have to question the political agenda in general. Is it helping the youth? Is it hurting the youth and the parents?” He also raised the problem of hype that surrounds games--how that hype actually increases sales while adversely affecting the public perception of the industry. “In a way, politicians are really helping the industry sell a lot of crap games” due to their shock value, he said. “Politicians are helping those crap games survive.”
Della Rocca also spoke of the voice of many game developers, trying to represent to Yee how those who make games feel about the political controversy. “Some developers feel dirty; they feel ashamed to be a game developers,” he said, noting how they have become “blacklisted” by the media and culture at large. “Every time they encounter a journalist or a family member ... it devalues the creative power of the work force. I think that's really unfortunate and is holding back the industry.”
Brathwaite, mediating the discussion, asked the panelists to also consider the stance taken by many which puts the responsibility of game purchasing and playing on parents.
“All of us in governement are not all that interested in getting deeply involved in determining how kids should be raised,” said Yee; yet, the consequence of not being involved deeply is the problem of negative childrearing. “We have a responsibility to protect children.”
“We shouldn't somehow interfere with parents raising their children... but when there is significant information that children are being harmed” it is the responsibility of the legislators to take notice and curb or prevent the possibility of harm," Yee said. And with ultra violent video games, “this is about the piecemeal behavior of mastering how to hurt someone.”
Yee cited examples of parents who work multiple jobs and simply are not present enough to monitor their children's entertainment. “At least as a child psychologist who cares about kids, we have got to do our part. It's a central part of the public policy,” Yee said.
Gee agreed that Yee's concerns were “very important” and would be discussed for the next decade at least. “The issue that was just brought up is the absolute crucial one. For normal kids playing video games, there is no issue here. Of course, there are children who are living with cultural violence or in violent homes,” said Gee. “But they're just as likely to [commit violent acts] if they read a book, or if they see a movie, or if they are insulted by a friend.” Gee also cited statistics of urban violence in American decreasing in the 1990s, at the same time that violent video games were first becoming widely popular.
“Let's worry about the real world circumstances,” said Gee, noting that global economic affect the level of violence seen more than any other factor.
For audience question and answer session, more than a dozen audience members lined up behind a centrally-located microphone to ask questions. All the attendees who were able to ask a question (due to time constraints) directed their questions at Yee.
One question in particular on the research that supports Yee's propositions, encited a confusing and misunderstood debate about semantics of research. Yee commented that “there is no evidence that smoking causes cancer” was jumped on by vocal members of the audience before the child psychologist clarified (though still confusingly) the difference between cause and effect findings in research and correlational findings. The debate that ensued, spurred by further audience outbursts, was ineffective and seemingly uninformed.
As Brathwaite restored order in the large conference room, she turned the talk back to its original question: What can we all do together to make sure video games are sold in a responsible way?
Most panelists agreed that the answer largely lies in educating parents about what games are and what they do--and that includes all games, not just the less than one percent of ultra-violent ones.
Yee, whose composure was rattled slightly during the question and answer session, recomposed himself to conclude, “I'm very respectful of the kinds of technology that you've developed. ... I don't see this as being adversarial.”