Sunday, September 17, 2006

Government by Acclamation

Last week Senator Joseph Lieberman's pet legislation CAMRA or the Children and Media Research Advancement Act was approved by the Senate. Normally, I'm all for federal funding of scientific research in the name of advancing knowledge, but I'm afraid that this legislation designed to pour money into the supposedly harmful effects of video games is a just another politically motivated example of pork barrel politics, because it will benefit "parents" front groups, which are more like corporate astroturf than populist grassroots organizing, and lobbying organizations for cultural conservatives affiliated with both sides of the aisle. In particular, I'm worried that the upcoming National Summit on Video Games, Youth and Public Policy, hosted by political insiders at the National Institute for Media and the Family, which brought you the Hot Coffee scandal, is a strategy session for how to divert money that should be going to genuine media scholarship into impressive-sounding but utterly circular number crunching that seeks to prove its own conclusions.

I was particularly concerned to see that during the testimony phase academics who have done research about the benefits of participation in digital culture by the young, such James Paul Gee, Henry Jenkins, Kurt Squire, Constance Steinkuehler, and danah boyd weren't even represented.

I will grant that the fact that the APA (American Psychological Association) appeared in support of the legislation gave me pause, given that it is certainly an organization with a long history in the academy and in the public sphere of advocacy for tolerance and the social safety net. However, I would still say that aligning themselves with a ratings-oriented system is a fundamental mistake, because such systems have a history of enforcing restrictive social norms and obstructing frank cultural conversations about both heterosexuality and homosexuality, as film-maker Kirby Dick has shown -- even if the ratings board for videogames is more culturally diverse than the MPAA, as President Patricia Vance explains:

ESRB game raters are recruited from one of the most culturally diverse populations in the world – New York City. The raters are all adults and are not required to be gamers themselves; a gamer-only rating system would likely bias rating assignments as they would surely bring a different sensibility to content than the pool of raters we have always used. Typically, our raters have some experience with children, and have no ties to the entertainment software industry. They are specially trained by ESRB to rate computer and video games and work on a part-time basis, attending no more than one 2-3 hour rating session per week. The ESRB strives to recruit raters who are demographically diverse by age (must be at least 18), martial status, gender, race, education and cultural background to reflect the U.S. population overall.

Of course, I'm a feminist and a pacifist, so I don't like the cultural messages in many of these videogames, but I'd rather see legislators working on keeping guns out of the hands of children rather than keeping them away from videogame controllers.

Why should legal scholars care about this legislation? Pay attention to the especially creepy testimony of Michigan State University's Kevin Saunders, since he was arguing that videogames -- like pinball machines -- aren't covered by first amendment protections. Given that many games are used to tell complicated stories, and that some have political or aesthetic agendas outside the limited metaphor of a primitive arcade game, Saunders' claim is troubling for an electorate in which more media consumption time is taking place in the form of games. Even more important, Constitutional scholars should be very alarmed by Saunders central argument that violence could be added to the category of obscenity, so that first amendment rights could be trumped in ways that might even make coverage of the current war in Iraq subject to censorship.

Here's another important fun fact about this legislation: although there would be serious arguments against it in a country with many game-players, it passed unanimously. So I'd like to take this opportunity also to point out a disturbing trend in legislation governing digital culture in which unanimous approval takes the place of real debate. Check out this vote count on CAMRA. Otherwise worthwhile legislation that sets fines so that downloading songs is equated with downloading child pornography while also giving the DOJ unprecedented surveillance powers over citizens' online activity also passed without a single dissenting vote.

(On a lighter note, CAMRA is also the acronym of the UK-based Campaign for Real Ale.)



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