New Letter to Governor Blagojavich

This past week, I submitted the following message to Illinois Governor Blagojavich’s Safe Games Illinois comment form:

I note that safegamesillinois.org cites studies regarding mature game content, but it overwhelmingly suggests that children are buying M-rated games in mass quantities and that such games are a major problem. There seems to be a lack of balance. There are studies such as the recent one conducted by Modulum that found that parents ignore game ratings:
http://gamesindustry.biz/news.php?aid=9703
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4118270.stm

If the above get mangled through your site’s form again, please search for “Parents ignore game ratings” in your favorite search engine.

While the study was conducted in the UK, I can see that a similar problem would be occurring here in the US and Illinois in particular.

It seems that the studies listed on safegamesillinois.org are quite biased and would indicate to someone not familiar with the industry that there are no studies that contradict them. The Useful Links page does not provide any links to the IGDA or any other representative body for the video game industry. The “Summary of Video Game Studies” does not list studies that indicate that most minors either have permission from their parents or have their parents present when they purchase M-rated games. Rather than fostering an Us against Them mentality, the site could be much more useful.

Some studies indicate that the problem isn’t enforcing ratings. They indicate that parents are buying games that they otherwise consider bad for their children because they assume the ratings don’t apply to their children. Once again, I ask in light of this information how the new laws are supposed to help protect children when the children aren’t the ones doing the purchasing and the parents are the ones who are providing access to the games in the first place? I still believe the new laws will not be effective at protecting children or preventing “seemingly arbitrary” violence in society at large.

I think parents should be better educated about game ratings and content, but I would prefer that safegamesillinois.org be a bit less biased and sensational and a bit more informative. Frightening parents away from video games isn’t the way to protect children. Not all video games are like Manhunt or Grant Theft Auto, and safegamesillinois.org does not do a good job of informing parents that there are other options.

Please pass this letter to the Senior Advisor Sheila Nix. I look forward to hearing from you regarding the balance of information provided on safegamesillinois.org. None of the studies on the site indicate that children are actually buying M-rated games, and it seems that the main problem is creating informed purchasers. The site could be an incredibly valuable tool for parents in making the purchasing decisions that they are already making, but I think the site is seriously lacking and misleading in its current state.

Gianfranco Berardi

I still think that the purpose of the laws doesn’t match with the reality. Children don’t buy the games in general, and citing that X% could buy the game doesn’t imply that they do. 98% of children walking to school could run out in front of cars, but they don’t generally. We don’t see legislation preventing children from taking dangerous walks to school.

These recent studies show that parents don’t think they need to pay attention to the ratings that are put there for them to use. And yet the game industry is painted as creating killers.

Huh? Am I supposed to assume that when a parent buys a game for a child that his/her negligence of the ratings system is now the game industry’s fault? The studies show that parents basically say, “Yes, I know the ratings. Yes, I know what they mean. Yes, I bought the game anyway because even though I don’t like the content, my child can handle it.”

The laws passed the Illinois Congress already. I’m sure we’ll see them overturned like similar legislation. But the Safe Games Illinois website claims to be a resource for parents, but it really isn’t. It seems to be more like a resource for those who are already convinced that the video game industry is out to get the children and have managed to sneak past the hard-working-but-innocent-victim parents.

Yes, video games can teach. Yes, there are games that are incredibly violent. But they aren’t the only games or lessons, and it is apparently the case that parents DO have the means to tell the difference.

What Games Taught Me

I grew up watching television and playing video games. I read books, but not as often as I do now. Somehow, I managed to get honors in high school. If games only allow me to “learn how to shoot cops”, how do so many people who play video games get good grades?

On Game Girl Advance’s Kids Can Learn to Read and Shoot Cops, the question came up: what can games teach us?

I would think that, if the game really gets a young, innocent, prelapserian child interested, then it also makes that child investigate the world of the game further. They might learn something about recent American history.

But maybe this is just me. Am I wrong? As a curious, unofficial poll, what new SAT words or useful skills did video games teach you folks? Have games taught you anything that makes you feel smarter or a better person? Any Trivial Pursuit questions answered correctly because of video games? To paraphrase Senator Schumer, can Johnny learn to read while shooting cops?

For the record, I did get a Trivial Pursuit question correct. Towering Inferno was one of my favorite Atari 2600 games, and I learned years later that it was based on a movie. While playing the DVD Trivial Pursuit, I listened to a mock pitch for a movie that sounded somewhat similar to the game I played. I got a piece of the pie for it. B-)

I also learned what scurvy was due to playing Illusion of Gaia. I remember looking up information on it because the idea of a lack of Vitamin C causing a disease was quite “out there”. Was it just made up for the game, or is it real? I had to find out. I had to learn.

I learned resource management. While I know of at least one person who hates strategy games (“Give me a mission, tell me what to do, and I’ll do it, but keep that crap away from me!”), I loved the intricacies of playing Ghengis Khan 2, Nobunaga’s Ambition, and P.T.O 2, all made by Koei. Real time strategy games like Total Annihilation and Starcraft similarly stressed the importance of resources. When I pack for trips or make plans for events for my LUG, I understand the importance of logistics. Not having enough pizza, underwear, or Medics can make or break your plans.

I also learned about the real-world people featured in the games. Nobunaga’s ambition to unify Japan was real. MacArthur’s famous “I shall return!” and the strategic importance of holding the Philippines were real. The political struggles, the balancing of Army and Navy resources, the value of allies and supply lines and research and intelligence…hundreds of hours watching the History Channel or reading history books doesn’t compare to the experience of watching a turn play out in front of you and knowing that what you did has an impact on the outcome.

What’s more vivid in your mind, reading about how North America was colonized by England, Spain, Holland, and France, or actively trying to keep peace with the Iroquois tribes nearby your main towns while preventing a competing nation from making landfall on “your” shores? Colonization introduced many of the major figures involved in the conquest of the New World in a way that history books just couldn’t.

Even games like Super Mario Bros taught me to tackle problems from multiple angles. You couldn’t find all of the bonuses or power-ups if you didn’t try hitting blocks that “weren’t there” or jumping into a pipe rather than over it. Thinking outside the box was normal in video games.

Games taught me how to be an organizer. Games taught me how to be efficient with limited resources. Games taught me how to experiment with new ideas or methodologies. Games taught me how to work well with others. Games taught me the importance of planning. Games taught me that my decisions can have multiple outcomes and affect many people.

Unfortunately, some people think that all I could have learned from video games is how to be dangerous and destructive.

To be honest, I did cause natural disasters like tornadoes and earthquakes in order to destroy my SimCity, but I distinctly remember cleaning the city back up and making it better than ever. B-)

Legally Blog

I found out that the EFF has published a Legal Guide for Bloggers.

Whether you’re a newly minted blogger or a relative old-timer, you’ve been seeing more and more stories pop up every day about bloggers getting in trouble for what they post.

The difference between you and the reporter at your local newspaper is that in many cases, you may not have the benefit of training or resources to help you determine whether what you’re doing is legal. And on top of that, sometimes knowing the law doesn’t help – in many cases it was written for traditional journalists, and the courts haven’t yet decided how it applies to bloggers.

But here’s the important part: None of this should stop you from blogging. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy, and Internet bullies shouldn’t use the law to stifle legitimate free expression. That’s why EFF created this guide, compiling a number of FAQs designed to help you understand your rights and, if necessary, defend your freedom.

A great guide, especially for people who aren’t supposed to be getting paid to blog but do. B-)

Part 2 of Software Patents? No Thanks!

I wrote previously about software patents in response to an article on Gamasutra. Gamasutra also had a Question of the Week, and the responses show that most people are clearly against software patents.

The authors of the previous letter wrote a response to the feedback. In it, they defend themselves as just the “messengers” and for the most part I can understand that they believe in their work. They make a good point that regardless if software patents are good or bad, currently they exist. I don’t believe they are hear to stay because there is nothing intrinsically permanent about them.

But then I read items like the following:

As we mentioned above, we are the messengers, encouraging developers who come up with legitimate video game inventions to protect, or at least give some thought to protecting, those inventions because that’s their legal right.

Not to get picky, but I don’t remember encouragement for legitimate video game inventions. I do remember reading that you can “patent everything under the sun”.

Also, they present a paragraph of philisophical questions. Can there be novel and innovative software? Shouldn’t someone be able to get a patent for such software if they could get it for a machine? If software can’t be patented, but the algorithm is implemented in a machine instead, is that somehow patentable?

I note that none of the questions are: Isn’t an algorithm in software simply math, which isn’t considered inventable so much as discoverable? I seriously believe that if software patents existed when computers were new, the for loop, if statements, and arithmetic functions like addition would have been patented.

And then the last few lines are the kind that upset me the same way their previous letter did:

Do we all somehow have a “right” to copy computer programs? Have you ever gotten upset at someone copying your work?

Once again, they tried to imply something that just isn’t the case. Getting rid of software patents doesn’t somehow grant everyone the right to copy computer programs! That’s called copyright infringement (and even then, there are some who believe that software can’t legally be copyrighted either), which has nothing to do with software patents. Do away with software patents, and all software is still protected under copyright unless it was explicitly placed into the public domain by the author. Whether your code is proprietary or open source, it is protected by copyright. No one can copy it without your explicit permission.

While I don’t believe these people can be equated to “ambulance chasers”, I would respect these “messengers” if they wouldn’t be so blatant in trying to confuse the issue and muddle the waters. Software patents and copyright law are confusing enough as they are.

Why Monopolies Are Bad

My friend Larry Garfield posted about Yahoo!’s poor customer service recently.

Essentially, someone managed to get access to his Yahoo! account and changed the password. Larry contacted Yahoo! a number of times, and each time he got a scripted response that naturally didn’t help. I personally use a Yahoo! email account, but Larry doesn’t. He does make use of Yahoo! Messenger and Yahoo! Groups and a number of other Yahoo! branded communities. Losing access to all of these, especially as an admin for a number of groups, would be terrible. Larry described how he couldn’t get support because the zip code on file was apparently wrong, and Yahoo! support basically says that “according to their TOS it’s my fault and they’re going to refuse to talk to me anymore.”

This, my friends, is known as a monopoly. This is why monopolies and oligopolies are a very bad thing. If you don’t like that Yahoo Support is impotent, where else are you going to go? Do I get a new account and orphan dozens of mailing lists and put myself at risk of the same lack of support again? Or do I dump Yahoo, the dozens of mailing lists I’m on, the dozens of people I know on Yahoo Messenger, and lock myself out from some very active and often pleasant online communities?

Granted, there are other places to go. Google Groups, IRC channels, etc. But there are problems with going elsewhere, since not everyone you talk to will move as well. What Larry just described is called “vendor lock-in”. When people complain that they are tired of getting burned by security issues in Windows but are too invested to move on to greener pastures, that’s vendor lock-in. When you’re told “do it our way or don’t do it at all”, that’s vendor lock-in.

I personally haven’t felt the need to move to GMail since I was actually happy with Yahoo! Mail. I didn’t care about 1GB of email, since 250MB was pretty huge already and I didn’t see the difference. On the other hand, Google’s probably got much better customer service. After all, point 6 on their philosophy page is “You can make money without doing evil.” For one thing, their login for GMail is secure by default, unlike Yahoo! Mail.

Software Patents? No Thanks!

I just read an article on Gamasutra titled It’s Just a Game, Right? Top Mythconceptions on Patent Protection of Video Games. I am interested in news and articles on software patents, and I’ve always been against them. While I believe patents can cover a physical invention, like a better mousetrap or printing press, I don’t believe patents should cover things like mathematics or intangible ideas.

You want to protect your software? Copyright covers your needs. It’s cheaper, and it’s faster. Trademark will protect anything from logos to specific characters. But patents? Way too expensive. They also bring the software industry to a standstill rather than push its progress along as claimed. Patents are supposed to be granted for non-obvious inventions. Most software patents are for obvious ideas. Anatomy of a Trivial Patent shows how easy it is to make something obvious sound incredibly complex and inventive.

When I read this article, I was hoping to receive information that either supports my view or gives convincing arguments for the opposing view. What I read, however, was lame B.S. about the “merits” of software patents. I will now go through each of these myths getting “busted” throughout the article.

Myth 1:
The first Myth being “busted” here is that you can’t patent computer programs. The truth is, you can patent specific ideas that are used in video games, but the author decides to argue this myth by first pointing out that you can patent the computer/console hardware. Huh? He then gets to the software portion:

  1. “Scoring based on goals achieved and subjective elements” sounds awfully familiar. Oh yeah, it is because most games with scores give you points for doing certain tasks, and the idea that you can get points for doing things in a cool way isn’t all that innovative, is it?
  2. A patent on the use of a machine? Again, not the same argument here.
  3. Sega’s patent on making characters run out of the way of an oncoming vehicle. Something that happens in CARTOONS and real life all the time!
  4. Battlefield strength and morale in a strategy game. Aren’t board games using this mechanic? Couldn’t I just as easily call these elements something else, like “popularity” or “happiness points”?

He also talks about how you can patent the distinct way a logo appears on the screen. These are actually the also-controversial “design patents”. I think trademark would do just fine here. In fact, that’s what trademarks are perfectly suited for because that’s what they were made to protect! Let’s look at the entry in the US Patent database: D487,574 has a list of other design patents that say essentially the same exact thing:
“The ornamental design for an icon for a display screen, as shown and described.”
“The ornamental design for an interface for a display screen for an electronic device, as shown and described.”
“Surface ornamentation for a handheld computer or a computer-generated icon for a handheld computer.”
“Icon for a display screen.”

Aren’t patents supposed to be granted for inventions? What’s so inventive about each of these that the others don’t already have prior art on?

And in any case, at no point is the “myth” that you can’t patent computer programs actually busted. You can patent techniques and algorithms, not whole programs. Nice try, author.

Myth 2:
The argument being made here is that even if you make a clone of a game, you have to have something unique about it, right? Patent that unique thing!

I create a power-up that makes the entire screen turn upside-down. Is that really going to be considered patentable?

Myth 3:
This argument says that while a patent might take a long time, you can get provisional rights, giving your application power even if your patent isn’t approved yet. Also, there is this quote:

Additionally, this may be another example of selling yourself short. Many inventions are broader in scope than the particular embodiment first produced by the inventor, and a good patent attorney can help an inventor identify the true, full scope of the idea that has been invented.

No, a good patent attorney can help an inventor identify the wording to make an otherwise specific “invention” cover a broad range of other “inventions”. You can patent “a mechanism for keeping point totals in order” and now you control the Top 10 List, but if you patent “a mechanism for displaying data in an arbitrary order” you have now patented not only the Top 10 List, but also end-game statistics for all kinds of games. Essentially, the author here is trying to convince you that there is a lot of money to be made by making your “invention” as broad as possible to cover as many possibilities as possible.

Myth 4:
Suing is expensive. The author ignores that point by arguing that patents are used for more than simply suing. Fine. But this line:

A patent portfolio is also a good defensive tool. Competitors, who will no doubt take advantage of the patent process for themselves, will think twice about suing you if there’s a threat of you suing them back (i.e., a countersuit).

Yeah, I’m sorry. No. If IBM, Microsoft, or probably even EA decides to sue you, your single, measly patent isn’t going to do anything. These companies will likely claim that your patent is actually making use of one of their patents. Imagine coming into a water-balloon fight with a pack of balloons, and the opponent holds the only water hose to fill them. That’s what it is like. IBM has argued that its huge patent portfolio is a great set of assets not because they receive licensing revenue, but because IBM can write whatever software it wants. NO ONE can go to IBM and say, “Hey, you’ve infringed on my patent, so give me money!” because IBM will return with, “YOUR patent makes use of any number of the thousands of patents we have. You can go away now. Oh, and you’ll also let us license your patent at no real cost to us. Have a nice day.”

Myth 5:

The “spirit of innovation” works best when there is a free market of ideas, and consumers are better off if video games are not patented.A classic argument among those who feel that the entire patent system should be abolished. You might want to make that argument to your representative in Congress, because unless the Constitution is amended to do away with patents, they’re here to stay.

The quote above is one of the examples that really showed that this article wasn’t meant to be informative so much as to persuade through deceit. One, people aren’t arguing to abolish the entire patent system. People are arguing that certain types of patents, specifically software patents, shouldn’t exist. The second statement implies that the Constitution already mentions patents, when it doesn’t. The Constitution grants the power to create ways to reward people for progress, but doesn’t create any specific power, like copyright or patents.

The patent system changes. So does copyright. It isn’t a far stretch to think that some changes are better than others, and some changes are just plain bad. The ability to patent software is one such change.

In the last paragraph for this “myth buster”, he talks about Ralph Baer, who supposedly gets credit as the father of video games. Don’t most people believe that Nolan Bushnell did it first? In fact, the author mentions Pong, which is technically Bushnell’s game. Bushnell opted out of a patent infringement suit by Magnavox because Pong was based on Baer’s more complex Ping-Pong game. Other companies lost lawsuits, and Magnavox made a lot of money. The author then mentions that Spacewar was created by Steve Russell.

Unfortunately for him, Russell did not seek patent protection on his concept, and did not document his development efforts as well as Baer. We will never know how history may have been rewritten had Russell sought patent protection on Spacewar. The moral of the story is simple: you should act to protect your inventions.

It sure sounds like it. Baer makes millions, and Russell failed. No, wait. Let’s remember who Russell was. A programmer at MIT. He made the first game that would be distributed with the computers being used at the time, which were mainframes. Trading programs wasn’t called piracy back then. It was called sharing. And you did so with tape, not disks. No one downloaded anything over p2p networks.

Russell was a student, and he hacked just for fun on the new DEC PDP-1. No one at the time thought to make money by selling software, let alone games. So Russell wasn’t trying to make money off of his game. Once again, the author is trying to convince you that software patents are great by offering up hints of ideas that you will hopefully turn into facts in your mind. I know the story, and so I knew that this comparison was horribly contrived and the language implied something that isn’t true. How many people know about Steve Russell and Spacewar? How many people reading this article would think that Russell “failed” with his game while Baer succeeded with “his” Pong?

If that specific paragraph in the author’s article doesn’t convince you that this author is trying to sell you something, I don’t know what will.

Myth 6:
Patents are expensive. The research prior to filing may be cheaper than ever, but the filing of a patent costs serious money. Maybe EA can afford to pay the thousands just to patent games, but indie developer budgets can easily double or triple due to filing costs. Don’t forget that if you have to sue or defend yourself, your lawyers will cost money too. Not everyone will make millions by suing people who make card games.

In the end:

Video game innovations will play a large role in determining who shares in the ever-growing multi-billion-dollar video game industry. As more and more companies enter the market, and spend more and more resources developing those innovations, protecting those innovations will become even more critical.

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Back up a bit here. If the Constitution grants the power to create things like copyright and patent laws to promote innovation, and more companies are entering the market and creating things, do we need MORE protection? Doesn’t this just contradict everything the author himself was saying? Patents allow for progress. There is more progress. Therefore, we need to “protect” progress? From who or what are we protecting our “inventions”? The author doesn’t say. The implication, of course, is that other people will take your “invention” and start making money from it, and you need to protect yourself.

We don’t need software patents to make software. Software patents don’t promote progress. They stifle it. Most software patents are being used defensively. Microsoft, IBM, and others trade licenses, and no real lawsuit gets completed anymore. “You can make use of our XOR patent if we get the right to use your patent on computer animation with color.” Not everyone is Microsoft or IBM, and so not everyone would benefit from software patents. The only real reason given in the article is to do it because everyone else is doing it. Get them before they get you.

Software innovation happens in spite of software patents, not because of it. If everyone who wrote software had to do a lengthy patent search before writing code or releasing projects, how many projects would be dead due to IBM alone? As the author explains, ANYTHING can be patented, so it isn’t like software patents are documenting actual inventions.

Software patents don’t protect anyone but large companies. They are expensive. They cover ideas, algorithms, and mathematics when patents are supposed to cover actual inventions. And even more important, the author was clearly trying to deceive rather than provide actual information. Can someone give REAL arguments for software patents? It doesn’t seem so. Most arguments “for software patents” tend to sidestep the issue and claim that patents are doing what they always do. Such arguments ignore the fact that software development is not like building vehicles, and they ignore the actual question: should software patents exist?

I believe they shouldn’t.

Some links:
League for Programming Freedom
Paper arguing that software patents would actually reduce innovation and progress (PDF format)

Violent Video Game Ban Passed in Illinois House

I read this article in the Chicago Sun-Times. Apparently the Illinois House passed the law 100-6.

Someone on the Indie Gamer forums posted a link to the FTC study that gets cited a lot by the Governor. Let’s look at the findings:

Ability of a minor to purchase an Electronic Game: 85% in 2000, 78% in 2001, and 69% in 2003
Ability of a minor to purchase a DVD: no data available in 2000 or 2001, but 81% in 2003.
Ability of a minor to purchase a movie theater ticket: 46% in 2000, 48% in 2001, 36% in 2003.

Now, this study only shows whether a minor was able to make the purchase. It never details whether or not such purchases are being made normally, so there is no indication that there is a problem in the first place.

But remember, the Senior Advisor to Governor Blagojevich says “Whether such inappropriate purchases are part of a widespread problem or not, this administration thinks that no child should be able to purchase these types of video games without his or her parents’ supervision.”

That’s a perfectly valid point to make. If you believe that children shouldn’t be able to purchase violent video games at all, then that’s fine. But all the studies cited make mention of television and movies. Are inappropriate purchases of DVDs not as bad? 81% is a LOT. Even if it isn’t part of a widespread problem, should children be allowed to buy R-rated DVDs? Apparently so. And at 36%, it is clear that the movie industry isn’t the great self-regulater that it’s made out to be. 36% is a LOT, and the Governor’s office has made it clear that there shouldn’t be ANY minors buying inappropriate video games.

And there you go. “Protecting the children” sounds all well and good, but it is not consistent with the actions of the government. I’m sure you’ll forgive me for not believing that it is the goal of such legislation to actually protect children. If it were, then the laws would do something meaningful at the very least. You don’t cite studies saying that television, movies, and video games have an effect on children, but then only show outrage at the popular scapegoat of the year.

Senior Advisor to Governor Responds to My Concerns

Awhile back I had sent a letter to Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. I received a generic form letter that didn’t address any of my concerns. I sent a second email to Safe Games Illinois asking someone to answer my questions. I figured I would receive a response from someone other than the Governor, but not the Senior Advisor!

Anyway, here’s the content of the letter (misspellings or other typos are likely mine):

Mr. Berardi:

Thank you for your two letters concerning the Governor’s Safe Games Illinois initiative. Although this administration may disagree with many of the arguments in your letters, we appreciate your interest in the issue.

You outline four broad concerns in your letter and I will try to address them one at a time.

Your first question deals with existing laws that limit minors’ access to materials such as books or movies with violent or sexually explicit content. Illinois law already restricts minors’ access to certain harmful material, as dictated by the state’s Harmful Material Statute (720 ILCS 5/11-21). This law prohibits minors from buying a broad range of sexually explicit material – materials such as pornographic books or magazines. So laws do in fact exist that prohibit children’s access to media other than video games.

Your second concern questions why the Blagojevich administration is singling out violent and sexually explicit material in video games and not in other media that may be potentially harmful to children. It has become painfully apparent that video game retailers are not self-regulating and that they continue to sell adult-rated video games to minors. In October of 2003 the Federal Trade Commission released a study which found that underage teens were able to purchase M-Rated games 69% of the times they tried. A press release for this study is available on the web http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2003/10/shopper.htm. Last January State Representative Paul Froehlich (R-Shaumburg) sent a 15-year-old boy to 15 retail stores in the Northwest Suburbs and found that this boy was able to purchase M-rated games at 11 stores. Whether such inappropriate purchases are part of a widespread problem or not, this administration thinks that no child should be able to purchase these types of video games without his or her parents’ supervision.

Your third concern is regarding the administration’s efforts to educate parents about inappropriate video game content. One of the critical components of the Safe Games Illinois initiative is to educate parents about the harmful effects that violent of sexually explicit video games have on children. A large portion of the Safe Games Illinois website is dedicated to providing parents with information on particularly violent or sexually explicit video games as well as with links to organizations that consistently monitor and rate the various video games that are arriving on the market. Here are three Safe Games links that you might find useful:

Also, one of the mandates of the Safe Games Illinois Task Force, a body comprised of many individuals who are parents, is to educate parents on the harmful effects that violent or sexually explicit video games have on children. It is the opinion of this administration that if parents are educated about the dangers of these video games and their children cannot legally buy these games without parental permission, then violent video games are less likely to be played by an inappropriate audience.

Your final concern dealt with the wording of the propose Safe Games Illinois legislation and the legislation’s definition of violent. The legislation’s current definition of “violent” video games include those games with:

Depictions of or simulations of human-on-human violence in which the player kills, seriously injures, or otherwise causes serious physical harm to another human, including but not limited to depictions of death, dismemberment, amputation, decapitation, maiming, disfigurement, mutilation of body parts, or rape.

I don’t think any reasonable interpreation of this definition would exclude children from purchasing age-appropriate games – such as Super Mario Bros or Donkey Kong.

If you have further questions about the bill, I strongly encourage you to take a look at the web site for House Bill 4023, maintained by the Illinois Legislature:

http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/billstatus.asp?DocNum=4023&GAID=8&GA=94&DocTypeID=HB&LegID=20889&SessionID=50

Thank you again for your letter.

Sincerely,
Sheila Nix
Senior Advisor to the Governor
State of Illinois

I’ll admit that I am ignorant of the laws regarding materials deemed harmful for children. According to Sheila, this law prohibits children from being sold pornographic books or magazines. So, where’s the analogous violent content law that does the same, which is what I was mainly concerned about?

The statistics they were using were presented in a way to insinuate that children are buying violent video games in droves or that it is an epidemic. For example, in this letter “underage teens were able to purchase M-Rated games 69% of the times they tried”. Ok, but how about commenting on studies that say that it isn’t happening that often in real life? That children DO tend to get their parents’ permission or have their parents present when they buy these games?

Another choice quote: “Whether such inappropriate purchases are part of a widespread problem or not, this administration thinks that no child should be able to purchase these types of video games without his or her parents’ supervision.” Ok, and because the motion picture industry is so effective at self-regulation, we won’t pass a similar law to stop the one or two instances when a child CAN get into an R-rated movie? I mean, even if it isn’t part of a widespread problem, doesn’t this administration think that no child should be able to view such movies? Perhaps I’m being petty, but I think the example is analogous.

And regarding the wording of the law in question, I’ve played games where the main character dies as a result of non-human characters or where the main character isn’t human. Are those allowed to depict death or dismemberment without falling under this law?

Someone in the ASP games newsgroup pointed out that if a law like this is passed, who pays for the rating system? How much would it cost to get a rating on a game to sell it in Illinois? How long will it take to get the rating? A mainstream game might have a million dollar budget and so the publisher might consider the cost to be a drop in the bucket, but an indie title does not usually have the means. Whatever the cost is, it will be significant to the indie. In any case, such a requirement would be harmful to the industry while having only dubious arguments to support it at the most.

Looks like I have another letter to write.

Governor Blagojavich’s Video Game Censorship Laws

I recently got a letter from the IGDA regarding Illinois Governor Blagojavich’s proposal to censor video games.

I have to say: it’s about damn time the IGDA said something.

I sent a letter to Blagojavich months ago regarding this issue. Weeks later I received a form letter that did not address my concerns or questions, and I suppose that’s expected, but why ask people for their opinions and then not do anything about them? So I went to the Safe Games Illinois website and submitted a comment where they explicitly ask for comments. The form didn’t appear to work since I got database errors when I tried to submit it. Apparently it did work, as I received an email from them, but they could not read my letter since the URL was malformed by their stupid form. I responded, so I hope to hear a response that actually addresses my concerns.

Anyway, the IGDA letter points out that the Illinois House passed the bill last week, and the Illinois Senate will receive it in early April. I decided to write to my Illinois State Senator Don Harmon:

Dear Senator Don Harmon,

Recently the Illinois House passed HB 4023 by an overwhelming majority.

Governor Blagojavich claims that these laws are necessary to protect the children. I sent him a letter asking for clarification on just how children can be protected, but I received a generic form letter that did not address my concerns. You can read my letter to the Governor on my website: http://www.gbgames.com/gov_letter.html

I urge you to oppose this bill when it arrives in the Senate in early April.

I do not believe these laws will be effective at protecting children from violent or sexually explicit games. Children get access to games because a parent or other adult already buys the games for them. Just because a child can buy a violent game, as demonstrated by a crime task force in recent months, it does not mean that they ARE buying games. My letter has a link at the bottom that cites a study that finds a majority of children get access to games through their parents.

I do believe that the games industry is being unfairly targeted. Even Governor Blagojavich cites claims that it is not just video games but any media that can have an effect on children. Why make a law that targets James Bond-themed video games while ignoring the James Bond-themed books and movies?

The laws will also require labels to be placed on games, yet the games industry already has a rating system in place. The MPAA has a motion picture rating system in place that has been used for years, and no one has needed a government enforced rating system for that industry. I believe that a second video game rating system will only serve to confuse the people it was meant to serve. Imagine going to a movie that is both rated PG-13 and rated I.G.E.T. or something similar. You would not know whether or not it was appropriate anymore.

Video games are being treated differently than other forms of media. Is there a reason for such treatment? No studies cited by Blagojavich claim that video games are alone in their impact on children, and yet no other media is being targeted by these proposals.

I urge you to oppose Governor Blagojavich’s laws on the basis that they are unfair and would actually hurt the public more than they would help.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your response.

Gianfranco Berardi

Now, I personally think that violent video games aren’t the scourge that Blagojavich and others claim. If they’re so horrible, why is it that people don’t kill others more often? Statistically, with millions of video games having been played over the past two decades, why aren’t there more incedents of people killing others if video games affect them so?

It’s because they don’t. I am not sure what to think about these laws. Is Blagojavich just trying to get a quick approval jump from families who are afraid of something they don’t understand? Is this a strategic move, where he knows he doesn’t have to actually DO anything to make said families think he is? Does he actually believe in what he is doing and is just misinformed?

I don’t know. What I do know is that video games have always had a bad rap. The following may be a bit off-topic, but I want to get it out there. Even before they were considered an evil that promotes killing, video games were unfairly associated with the antisocial. How many of you gamers have ever been told, “Why don’t you just put down the stupid games, go out, and get a life?” Last I heard, even the earliest video game consoles had two controllers at least. Why is a board game or a card game (or for that matter going to a bar to drink and smoke) considered healthy and social, but playing Super Mario Bros or Quake 3 Arena considered antisocial behavior?

Movies. Books. Those are ok. Being a bookworm used to be insulting, but it really isn’t. Neither of those mediums promote interaction with others much, and that’s fine. But play a video game, and besides being considered antisocial, you’re now promoting murder simulators. It’s absurd, and yet people have no problem making this leap in logic.

If you live in Illinois, please urge your Illinois State Senator (in your Senate District, not the Federal Senate) to oppose Governor Blagojavich’s video game censorship laws. I also plan on contacting my State Representative and ask her why she voted yes.