Leland Yee didn’t intend to become the frontman for the crusade against video game violence.
But a law written by the Democratic state senator who represents San Francisco and San Mateo has ended up as the national test case for whether and how the government can regulate video games. The law would ban the sale of video games deemed “ultra violent” to children under 18.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear an appeal by the state of California of a lower court’s decision in 2007 to overturn Yee’s law, which was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 but is not in effect because of an injunction.
The video game industry, which has a big presence in California, strongly opposed efforts to regulate their work, arguing that they deserve as much protection under the 1st Amendment as other art forms.
Yee, a former child psychologist, believes that violent video games are particularly harmful to children and that the government has the same interest in regulating access to them as it does pornography.
He spoke to Facetime about what he thinks about video games and his role in the debate over them.
Q: Are you surprised that a bill you wrote may end up deciding the role of government in the video game business?
A: I always felt that the way we crafted this bill was the right approach to go after ultra-violent video games. I was disappointed that there was an injunction put in place and we lost our first appeal, but I’m very pleasantly surprised that the Supreme Court is taking a look at this issue.
When I decided to get into politics, my mother lamented, “What has my son done?” She helped me to get a PhD in psychology, and I was throwing it away to become a politician. Because this issue deals with children and their behavior and helping them, I feel like I didn’t let my mother down.
Q: Out of all the ways to help children, why did you end up becoming so active in video games?
A: I was always interested in the influence of violence on TV and in the movies on children. But what this new technology presents is really over the top. One reason is the interactive nature, the fact that you can push a button and make certain horrific things happen. If you demonstrate to a child that you can do these things, it becomes part of their repertoire for dealing with anger.
In addition, as you play these games over and over again, you become desensitized. This is the same scenario as people in the armed forces who have a natural tendency to not want to kill, but after a while they don’t feel it anymore.
Q: You don’t play video games. How can you call for regulation of a medium you’re not very familiar with?
A: That is a fair criticism. I’m not a player. But I have seen individuals who play these games. I have seen individuals using a baseball bat and bludgeoning a hooker to death, or taking a gun and shooting a cop. Those are the direct result of someone pushing a button and making a conscious decision. I can see that that kind of connection between your action and the consequent behavior is dangerous.
With a movie you can sit there for two hours and see everything. In these violent games, parents may never fully understand what they contain because you have to be a very sophisticated player to trigger them.
Q: Do you think video games are an art form? Do game creators deserve freedom of expression?
A: This is where some critics misunderstand me. I think video games are artful and it takes a lot of creativity to make them. I also think the interactive nature of them and the technology behind them can have great educational value.
I’m never going to be the person who stands up and says we should ban these ultra-violent video games. I’m just saying children ought not to be allowed to access them unless a parent buys it for them. Otherwise, video games are just as worthy under the 1st Amendment as movies.
Q: Your law would apply only to video games bought in stores, but more and more games are downloaded from the Internet or played on mobile phones.
A: It’s true that the current law I have will not keep up with that, so there is leakage. But we made a conscious effort not to go after games you download. Once you’re dealing with regulating the Internet, that’s a whole other can of worms.
Q: Your children are grown. Did you let them play with an Atari or Nintendo growing up?
A: I did, but one of the things I made sure of is that when they played in their rooms, the screen was always facing the doorway. That way I could walk by and see what was happening.