Kids' Beat

By Lynch, Michael W. | Reason, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Kids' Beat

Lynch, Michael W., Reason

In which our man in Washington explores the constitutional status of video games, hears the declinist take on kids, and watches John McCain wow Yalies

Date: Thurs, November 11, 1999 1:38:00 PM


Subj: Video Target

"I will know we have arrived when we get mentioned in your column," Rick Kaplar of the Media Institute said as I approached the registration table for lunch at the Four Seasons in Georgetown. The Media Institute concerns itself with the First Amendment and communications policy. One way it expresses its concern is by hosting a luncheon series, sponsored by such companies as America Online, CBS, Time Warner, and EchoStar Communications. Coincidentally, the executives of some of these very companies address the issues after a half an hour of wine and a hearty lunch.

Yesterday's featured speaker heads the trade group that represents manufacturers of video games--you know, those violent death simulators that turn your kids into killers. They've come under considerable scrutiny of late, as their products obviously poison souls and minds as surely as tobacco poisons lungs and hearts. This summer, President Clinton called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the industry's marketing practices, giving the ever-eager bureaucrats at the FTC full subpoena powers.

I sat down at a table back and center, joining a friendly assortment of the regulators, the regulated, and the trade press reporters who cover them. My table mate from the FTC has been working for the commission for 28 years and recently spent time scrutinizing the dietary supplement industry. He has now turned his attention to video games.

I asked him about a report that the FTC was having trouble finding staffers skilled enough to advance to the higher levels of the games they were supposed to be investigating. "Are you going to hire kids?" I asked, suggesting that such employees might put the agency in an ethical bind. If horrible violence, blood, guts, and perhaps a bit of animated cleavage spring forth at the games' higher levels, then the government would be responsible for corrupting kids. He assured me that the agency had younger adult staffers on the video teams, who I gather are skilled virtual killers.

Dessert arrived, and it was time for the key-note speech by Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, a job he assumed after having been a reporter for nine years and serving as legislative director to former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio).

Lowenstein had grave news for us. The media, with their penchant for sensationalism, shoddy sourcing, and desire for villains, are undermining the constitutional freedoms on which his industry depends. In the wake of Columbine, the companies who pay his hefty salary have found themselves under relentless and baseless attack. On show after show, Lowenstein said, a self-styled expert without a Ph.D. who founded something as ridiculous as the "Killology Institute" held forth on the dangers of video games. Interviewers treated his words as though they were revealed truth, even though he's never been published in peer-reviewed journals. Politicians introduced bills that would have (gasp!) heaped federal regulation on the video game industry--which obviously is just the sort of free speech our founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. The public's been no help: "Alarmingly," Lowenstein said, "people seem willing to accept constitutional restrictions on the entertainment industry." Imagine! Next the y won't be upset when the government tells them they can't smoke in buildings they own.

As Lowenstein rolled through his unabashedly self-serving speech--can you believe that his industry has been compared to the purveyors of cigarettes, instead of the sellers of books, who have constitutional rights?--I kept thinking: Welcome to the club. I waited for him to offer sympathy to the makers of such products as firearms, cigarettes, and automobiles, whose industries are bossed around by federal bureaucrats in nearly every aspect of their operations. …

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