New York State Senate passes facepalm-worthy bill mandating videogame regulation

I tell you, I love living in New York, but sometimes, the government here does things that make me scratch my head and want to scream. Generally, it’s a pretty progressive state — but the reactionaries that serve in the state’s governing bodies, the State Assembly and the State Senate, can infuriate people with their recalcitrant ways. One such anti-videogames lobbyist is Republican New York State Senator Andrew Lanza.

Last year, Lanza introduced a bill in the Senate that had the intent of cracking down on videogame violence. It aimed to do that by establishing an Advisory Council on Interactive Media and Youth Violence, as well as a Parent-Teacher Anti-Violence Awareness Program, and by requiring all games sold in New York (at retail or over the Internet) to carry an ESRB rating label. For more on that bill, check out David Houghton’s detailed analysis of its pros and cons. The bill was passed astonishingly quickly — in four days — but it never became law due to political battles between then-Governor Eliot Spitzer and Republican Senators.

I’ll give Lanza some credit here; he seems to be undaunted by failure, as he sponsored a nearly identical bill in the State Senate this year. The bill was first proposed in the State Assembly by Democratic Assemblyman Joseph Lenton of Brooklyn. This bill has the added requirement that all videogame consoles have regulatory controls. It passed unanimously on June 23rd in the Assembly, and it was up for a vote in the State Senate yesterday. Thanks to Lanza’s defense of the legislation, it passed 61-1.

Now, the bill will go directly to Governor David Paterson. If he signs it, the bill will become law on September 1, 2010 — though the games industry will surely file a federal lawsuit on the grounds that the bill is unconstitutional. Hit the jump for my own analysis of this unfortunate situation.

[Via GamePolitics — thanks, power-glove!]

[Update: The article originally discussed unrated games and movies, which are exempt from the bill. Changes have been made to reflect this. –SS]

Unfortunately, the bill is already on its way to Governor Paterson. Before it was passed in the State Senate, the Video Game Voters Network (an organization sponsored by the Entertainment Software Association, the parent organization of the ESRB) exhorted New York residents to send letters to their state legislators, telling the politicians to vote against the bill. I guess no one was listening, since there was only one dissenting vote.

Schoolhouse Rock!

My main problems with this bill are: it’s essentially pointless and redundant, and it unfairly singles out the videogame industry. Let’s dissect it:

Advisory Council on Interactive Media and Youth Violence

The bill provides for the creation of a 16-member government council to do the following: study the potential effects of violent videogames, examine the ESRB ratings system and its effectiveness, and potentially establish a Parent-Teacher Violence Awareness Program to “identify and appropriately assist students who may have a propensity toward violence.”

Why is such a council necessary? After all, a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) study found that 80% of the time, retailers didn’t sell M-rated games to kids under the age of 17. That’s much better than the rate at which movie theaters were able to prevent under-17s from seeing R-rated movies without an of-age companion (65%). And as for stores selling DVDs of R-rated films, forget it: they did it just under half the time (53% prevention). So obviously, the rating system is doing its job — and as such, if you’re going to target the self-regulating private organization, why not go after the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for its film rating system as well?

Required parental controls on videogame consoles

All of the “big three” consoles of this generation already have parental controls. In fact, there’s a great USA Today article from December 2006 that explains how to set them up on the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii (ironically enough, the DS doesn’t have any such system, except for its web browser). The bill actually only covers non-portable videogame consoles (“such terms shall not include a personal computer, nor shall they include a handheld device in which such entire device, including the viewing screen, is designed to be held in one’s hand”), so the PSP and DS are exempt anyway.

Xbox 360 Console Controls menu

And no offense, but if you have kids and you either (A) can’t figure out the controls, or (B) can’t be bothered to do so, well, you need to do a better job of being a parent. It’s not Sony’s, Microsoft’s, or Nintendo’s fault that soccer moms claim to have better things to do than making sure that their children don’t have access to violent videogames. Thus, it also shouldn’t be something that the New York State legislature has to reinforce by law.

Required display of rating for videogames and films

The final section of the bill is rather curious — it applies to videogames as well as movies, and it enacts requirements for the display of ratings:

No person, partnership or corporation shall sell or rent at retail or attempt to sell or rent at retail a VIDEO GAME OR film unless {the} A VIDEO GAME rating {of} OR the RATING OF THE motion picture from which {it} THE FILM was copied is clearly displayed on the outside of the case, jacket or other cover of the VIDEO GAME OR film.

Yet again, we have a redundant part of the bill. According to the ESRB’s Web site, games with ESRB ratings are required to display ratings information on game packaging and in advertising. If a publisher fails to adequately satisfy these requirements, the ESRB can take action that includes: “the re-labeling of product inventory and unsold product at retail or, potentially, a product recall.” Once again, this has already been taken care of by the self-regulatory ESRB, so the New York State government doesn’t need to meddle in the proceedings.

ESRB ratings madness!

In its article on last year’s Lanza-introduced bill, GamePolitics noted that such “content-based restrictions” have meant death in the “First Amendment scrap heap” for pretty much every other bill like this. Regardless, the passage of this bill in the State Assembly and Senate has been quite expedient, so lamentably, it looks as if Gov. Paterson will soon sign it into law. We may be in for a long, protracted legal battle, my friends — let’s hope my fellow New Yorkers come to their senses.

Samit Sarkar