The Political Game: NY video game bill barks, doesn't bite

Each week Dennis McCauley contributes The Political Game, a column on the collision of politics and video games:



The video game world was buzzing last week following the New York legislature's passage of a video game statute. In voting overwhelmingly for the bill, New York became the first state to pass a video game law since June, 2006 when lawmakers in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Minnesota all sent restrictive game legislation to their respective governors for signature. The video game industry opposed all of those laws, of course, on constitutional grounds. Since Gov. David Paterson is expected to sign the New York bill into law, there's a natural assumption that the industry will also drag the Empire State into federal court.

But maybe not.

While earlier state laws placed content-based restrictions on video game sales, New York's proposed statute does no such thing. It is largely symbolic, perhaps designed to persuade voters that legislators are doing something to address that familiar cultural whipping boy, video game violence.

So, how impotent is the New York law?

Very.

Its first requirement is that new video game consoles have parental controls built in. Of course, the Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 already do. Next, the law calls for the formation of a 16-member advisory council. This group would examine the potential impact of violent media, make recommendations regarding the ESRB ratings, and set up "a parent-teacher violence awareness program to identify and appropriately assist students who may have a propensity toward violence."

That last part, with its implication that violent games are de facto related to school shootings, is more than a little insulting to gamers. It's also reminiscent of the Tom Cruise film Minority Report, as in, "let's determine who the violent kids are before they do anything violent."

"You may substitute the word 'toothless' for advisory, if you like."

But then again, this is an advisory council. You may substitute the word "toothless" for advisory, if you like. I've also learned that the video game industry has been promised two of the 16 seats. One will go to the ESA, representing game publishers, while the other goes to the EMA, on behalf of game retailers.

The bill's third major component requires that games have content ratings on their packaging. You know, sort of like the ones the ESRB has already been placing there for more than a decade.

Given that this bill will smack the industry with all the force of a bag of marshmallows, it seems unlikely that there will be any lawsuit. Although, to be fair, I should point out that the ESA's Video Game Voters Network issued an alert on Monday, calling the New York Senate bill "unnecessary and unconstitutional," and urging New York-based members to contact sponsor Sen. Andrew Lanza with their concerns.

In the game retailers' response to passage, the EMA called the legislation unnecessary, but the trade group seemed to indicate that they could live with it. Nor would this be the first time that the video game industry declined to sue over the passage of a game-related law. California and Washington, for example, have had laws on the books for years requiring that game retailers post information about the ESRB rating system.

"Spitzer, who was openly critical of the animated hookers in Grand Theft Auto, famously saw his own career, ahem, go down in flames over flesh-and-blood call girls."

There is, of course, some history behind the New York legislation and it's more amusing than most. In 2007 the state seemed on the fast track to pass an especially nasty bill, one that would have made it a felony to sell an M-rated game to anyone under 17. But those efforts vanished into the political black hole generated by a bitter feud between Senate Republicans and then-Governor Eliot Spitzer. Still hoping to keep the video game issue alive, Spitzer's administration released an incredibly lame slide show last December. Apparently cobbled together by career bureaucrats who had just completed an introductory PowerPoint class, the presentation's most noteworthy feature was its inclusion of parody site Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence as a parental resource. Of course, Spitzer, who was openly critical of the animated hookers in Grand Theft Auto, famously saw his own career, ahem, go down in flames over flesh-and-blood call girls.

For his part, bill sponsor Sen. Lanza outraged gamers last year by comparing the appalling amateur game V-Tech Rampage to the then in development Grand Theft Auto IV. While arguing for his bill on Tuesday, Lanza made another rather curious remark. Speaking about the 2007 bill that came this close to passage, Lanza said, "Last year's version... that included a provision that would have made it an E-felony to sell these games, we all thought it was wrong."

This begs the question, of course: If Lanza and his colleagues thought it was wrong, how did the felony bill pass the Assembly and only miss passage in the Senate when the Spitzer and the Republican majority leader decided they couldn't get along?


Dennis McCauley is the Political Editor for the Entertainment Consumers Association (www.theeca.com), tracks the political side of video games at GamePolitics.com and writes about games for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Opinions expressed in The Political Game are his own. Reach him at

This article was originally published on Joystiq.