Analyzing State of Massachusetts House Bill 1423

“SECTION 1. Section 31 of Chapter 272 of the General Laws, as appearing in the 2004 Official Edition, is hereby amended by deleting the definition ‘Harmful to Minors’ inserting the following new definition: ‘Harmful to minors’, matter is harmful to minors if it is obscene or, if taken as a whole, it (1) describes or represents nudity, sexual conduct or sexual excitement, so as to appeal predominantly to the prurient interest of minors; (2) depicts violence in a manner patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community, so as to appeal predominantly to the morbid interest in violence of minors; (3) is patently contrary to prevailing standards of adults in the county where the offense was committed as to suitable material for such minors; and (4) lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.

“SECTION 2. Said Section 31 of Chapter 272, as so appearing, is hereby further amended by inserting in the definition of ‘Visual Material’ after the word ‘videotape’, the following: ‘interactive media,’.”

-Full text of the proposed Massachusetts House Bill 1423, titled “An Act to Restrict the Sale of Video Games with Violent Content to Minors”

What you see above is the entirety of the bill introduced in Massachusets this week, sponsored by state representative Linda Dorcena Forry and backed by Boston mayor Thomas Menino.

From the outset, it’s easy to see that the introduction, discussion, and imminent failure of this bill is mostly for the sake of posing for cameras and influencing constituencies. Anyone attached to a bill like this can be pointed at as a “family values” candidate, someone who supposedly has the best interests of our children in mind. The recent popularity of gaming makes it a prime candidate for the fire and brimstone of politicians, something that people can look at and condemn at the drop of a hat as they watch it capture the imaginations of the world’s youth. Shouldn’t they be outside, playing? Should they really be interacting with something that treats stealing a car as a good thing? This bill represents people who don’t understand a medium preaching to people frightened by it, a volatile combination any way you look at it.

Is this porn?

Still, based on the text of the bill, one might take some issue with the ways it has been represented in the media. For one, it is constantly referred to as the “games-as-porn” bill, which seems a bit disingenuous, since such a label seems to imply that those behind the bill are chomping at the bit to call games porn, to get them out of stores and ruin the day of the developers and publishers behind the filth. I don’t necessarily see it that way — to me, it looks a little bit like a “games-can-be-porn” bill, which actually makes a little bit of sense, to a point.

Bear with me here. The way that the obscenity/pornography laws of Massachusetts are currently written, some retailer could sell a 10-year-old a game called Misty’s Masochistic Ménage à Trois, and there’s a chance that they wouldn’t be held responsible, given that “interactive media”, as Section 2 of the proposed bill puts it, is not currently covered by the law. Putting aside the highly subjective topics of what exactly constitues obscenity or pornography, it seems safe to say that if you are going to hold people responsible for selling “filth” to minors, video game “filth” should be part of that. The addition of “interactive media” to the definition of “Visual Material” would seem to be more a matter of times changing than any sort of video game witch hunt.

How about this?

It’s the other part of the bill that seems a touch…underdeveloped. The definition of “Harmful to Minors” proposed by Bill 1423 is actually identical to the one that already exists, except for the insertion of clause #2, the wording describing violence. The problem here is that the definition of “violence” as it applies to media is even more difficult to nail down than the already subjective topic of what exactly constitutes “sexual conduct”. Besides even that, the way the Bill is worded, the “violence” clause is not specific to games (as implied by most of the coverage of the bill) — the sale of any media considered too “violent” to minors becomes subject to the pornography laws. You could just as easily call this the “violence-as-porn” bill, which may well mean that it applies to the genre of movies that spawned Saw and Hostel. Still, there is a tremendous genre of movies whose entire point is mindless violence, with no truly redeeming artistic value to be found. They’re called action movies. The governor of California even starred in a couple of them. Are they going to enforce the sale of Commando the same way they do, say, Condemned?

So would the passing of Bill 1423 mean the possible enforcement of laws prohibiting the sale of the most violent of video games to minors? Of course. The fist-bumping violence of Army of Two or the gleeful feeling of running from the cops in the Grand Theft Auto series would probably take a small hit in sales…or, at least, they would in Massachusetts. Still, based on the all-too general wording of the bill and the implications of it beyond its intent, there’s no way it could possibly pass as it is currently written.

As far as I can see, it’s hardly worth getting worked up over. Disagree? Let me have it in the comments.