“Violent” Games Pulled from Mass. Highway Rest Stops?

A/N: I also posted this on Screwattack.com. 2000 views for the win!

I saw this story on both GameSpot, the Boston Globe, and Reuters, and had to marvel for a minute at the mixture of audacity and lack of thinking behind it.

To summarize, a family (Andrew and Tracy Hyams, along with their son) was in a rest stop off the highway in Charlton, Massachusetts and they witnessed a kid playing a shooter game at the rest stop’s arcade. Because they felt it was insensitive in the wake of the Newtown, Conn. shooting, they contacted the Dept. of Transportation, who agreed to remove “violent’ arcade games from the rest stops.

The full article can be found here: http://bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/01/11/state-melrose-mayor-target-violent-video-games/rJDPeKQTBfKYIt92Gic24L/story.html

In short, this is really thorny. While it’d be nice to call it a cut-and-dry case of overreaction or to glorify the family for making a morality call, it’s neither. I think that removing the games was the wrong thing to do, but it was the DOT’s right to do so. Because it’s difficult to talk about, let’s look at each perspective in this instance.

The Hyams were exercising their 1st amendment rights and making use of their efficacy – the ability to influence events. It’s a fundamental part of American democracy and identity to be able to influence decisions by government. One can argue that they were over-reacting, but the points they raised with the DOT are valid: the rest stop is relatively close to Newtown, Connecticut, and the game was incredibly loud. It could be culturally insensitive to be playing a shooter game in a public area where any passerby could hear the sounds of gunshots.

Nevertheless, there are strong counter-arguments to the Hyams’ position. For one thing, playing the game can be construed as public expression, and it violated no decency laws. If protected free speech extends to publicly burning American flags (re: Texas v. Johnson), then surely it covers playing a game, regardless of recent events. Moreover, arcade machines are always loud; they’re designed that way to attract attention in the hopes that people will hear the noise, enter the arcade, and choose to spend money there. If the DOT hadn’t heard complaints about the noise (and one of the games mentioned in the article, Time Crisis, is 17 years old) beforehand, then the claim of the shooter games’ excessive noise is dismissible.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) was reacting to a public request in an atmosphere of cultural sensitivity to gun violence and suspicion towards video games. They have absolute control over what is allowed in highway rest stops, and they did nothing legally or ethically wrong by removing the games. They just made, in my opinion, a bad judgment call.

Let’s remember that the DOT is ultimately answerable to citizens, and the two sides of the issue are asymmetrically matched. On one hand, you have a cultural backlash to gun violence (at least in New England), a pallor of suspicion cast upon “violent” video games (from the White House down), and a family making, on the surface at least, a reasonable request. On the other side, you have the game manufacturers…and the pithy amount of revenue that the arcade machines probably bring the DOT every year. This was not a tough decision, it was just waiting for someone to break the ice – and the Hyams family did it.

That doesn’t mean that the DOT made the morally right decision, but no sane government agency would openly invite public controversy and criticism.

Conclusion

Really, is it any wonder that this happened? Games have been the subject of controversy for decades. The Boston Globe has been particularly critical of games lately, and the mayor of Melrose, MA has launched an initiative to convince residents to dispose of “violent” media, but specifically games.

The actions by the Hyams family and the DOT are well-intentioned. They were wrongheaded and reactionary, but well-intentioned nonetheless. I certainly hope that they don’t become flashpoints for internet hatred, since they were doing their best. But censorship has never been the answer. A litany of studies have failed to prove even a correlation between violent games and violent crime, but I don’t want to go into that right now.

Instead, one of two things must happen: The Massachusetts DOT must either recognize the connotations of its decision, reverse course, and re-institute the arcade machines, or it must implement a statewide policy regarding appropriate entertainment in public facilities. The latter can be fought in the spheres of law and public opinion, and it is a fight that video game advocates can win if they try.

I only hope that 1st amendment rights prevail.

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