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Insomniac Games' Ted Price Talks Gaming, Violence, And The Law

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Posted November 1, 2010 - By Stephen Johnson

X-Play Supreme Court Coverage - Extended Ted Price Interview »


 

As you probably know, The United States Supreme Court is hearing a case this week with huge implications for the video game industry -- at issue: Whether states are legally allowed to set limits on the sale of video games to minors. Adam Sessler recently sat down with Insomniac founder Ted Price and got in depth about the issues at hand. Price, Insomniac Games founder and the Chairman of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, recently filed a declaration with the Supreme Court in support of the Entertainment Software Association.
 
Click the "Read More" tag below for an even more in-depth discussion with Price.

Adam Sessler: Ted, thank you so much for your time. This supreme court case could be the end game for all of these matters surrounding whether or not selling certain types of games to minors is legal. You've been involved with this for quite some time as its gone through various state legislatures around the US, when did it start for you?

Ted Price: Several years ago. When states started to pass laws that were anti-video game laws ESA asked me to help out by writing declarations to support their cases. And so I believe I wrote declarations for eight different state fights we had against state legislators.

AS: A declaration, when it's involved in a case like this, what does that mean for you?

TP: A declaration is one person's view of the law, and it's usually accompanied by examples to prove the point. In my case, i was speaking as a video game developer and what these laws would mean to our industry. But more importantly, explaining why, in my opinion, video games are artistically with merit and deserve to be treated the same way as other forms of media.

AS: I guess for the viewer, and I’ve noticed this with some people writing in, they don’t seem to understand what the full implications of this are. It would be very severe in terms of what creativity in the video game industry, i guess the way it would be limited. If you could explain that.

TP: If this law is upheld, it really does affect the industry in a huge way. First of all, the law states that games that contain a fairly ambiguously defined kind of content will be have to labeled separately from the ESRB's labeling. And so you're probably going to have games that have this big 18 sticker on them and an M rating. Which is really confusing first of all for anybody that wants to buy games, but more importantly, the law would make it a crime for retailers to sell a game with this label to a minor. This is the first time I believe we've seen any kind of entertainment media regulated in such a way. And the way it could affect us as creators is that it's unlikely that retailers will want to carry these games that are labeled 18 because they could be held liable and fined if they sell to someone who is under 18. If they don’t carry these games, then it's unlikely publishers will want to make these games. And if publishers don’t make the games, then we as creators have no way to distribute our games. All of a sudden we are left having an area where we are completely restricted in terms of what we can make. And to me, that is a clear abridgement of our first amendment rights under The Constitution.

AS: Obviously this case in not unique. What's happened in California has happened in Illinois and in several states around the country. It seems to erupt from time to time. In your opinion what’s behind it? Is it just a wholesale misunderstanding of what video games are all about?

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TP:  I think that’s certainly apart of it. I think that every new form of media that comes along tends to be tagged as dangerous because people don’t understand what it is. Certainly with books, with film, talk radio, with music, politicians have attempted to regulate those industries in the same way there trying to regulate video games now by claiming they are somehow harmful to people, whereas there are no conclusive studies that show video games are harmful. It's crazy. And I think a lot of the impetus behind these laws comes from simple ignorance. People don’t understand what games have become over the last 20 years. Games really are equivalent in terms of there artistic merit, to film, to books, to TV. We draw from the same sources for inspiration and the characters we create, the stories we develop are just as deep and just as compelling. They address the same types of social issues that you see in other forms of media. So it's really frustrating as a creator, to us possibly becoming restricted like cigarettes and alcohol and drugs. 

AS:  The science, or the alleged science, lets put it that way, behind this idea that somehow there is something unique [about video games] as a form of entertainment because of its interactivity. The studies, while they seem to exist, have been shot down time and time again. And there also seems to be contrary studies that say, look, there really is no evidence that there are any harmful effects. What is this desire to always try to look at these, what I think are biased unfunded studies, to actually come up with that kind of result?

TP: To be blunt I think a lot this is grandstanding by politicians. That politicians see this as election year and they want to grab this cause and fight for the children, and that's BS. I mean, c'mon guys. I mean, look, do the research, do it right. The ESA has done the research, and has done it right, and has proved conclusively, in my opinion, that there's no harm to kids. And if you do claim there is harm to kids from videogames, then you better look at film; you better look at books; you better look at all media, and treat it the same, because it is completely inappropriate to single out video games apart from other media. Whether they're interactive or not, I mean there are so many different forms of expression that we support in the United States. Whether it's film, TV, the web, they all have an influence on us one way or the other, but to single out video games is really inappropriate.

AS: As you list off the other forms of entertainment, I mean most representatives of other organizations, I mean the film industry, the music industry, the comic book industry, have come on with amicus briefs to support the ESA's case in the Supreme Court because in the long run, if this happens to video games, there is no reason it will be sequestered to video games. This could have a huge snowball effect on other forms of entertainment.

TP: Absolutely. The first real challenge we've seen in a long time to our first amendment rights, which just happens to be video games, are the target. However, if the challenge succeeds, it's a slippery slope, and I think we're going to see a lot of folks look at movies again, look at rap music and start claiming once again that they are somehow harmful to people because of their content, which, if that happens, America becomes a very different place.

AS: Some of the stuff that you find in the petitioner’s brief from the state of California highlights a very small group of games. Manhunt, Postal 2, games that are definitely the most extreme end of violence. There seems to be a tendency to look at the most extreme example, and make that typify the entire video game industry.

TP: I think that any time these issues come up -- again, whether its films, TV -- the people who want to restrict the content look at the most extreme examples and tend to paint a picture for the non, in this case, the non-game playing world, think games are like this. This is what you can expect when you buy a game. This is what you'll be exposed to. And that is very far from the truth. Games today cover a very broad range of topics, a broad range of genres, and to single out 1 or 2 examples as typifying what you can find as a game player today is crazy. However, I believe that games that have violent content should be protected similarly to games that don't have violent content. It is, once again, our rights as creators to express ourselves. If you don't like what's in the game, don't buy it.

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AS: You, I think, are a remarkable spokesperson. Because the two franchises currently that typify Insomniac are Ratchet and Clank, which has the most cartoonish form of violent content, I think available out there. It has kind-of a fun spirit. And there's Resistance, which is, of course a dark world. It is a violent game. But, definitely does not fall into that extreme group that we had.

TS: I think some people may think it does. And so one of the problems with the California law is the descriptions for what is and isn't permitted under a law is so vague, that anybody could take a look at one of our characters in Resistance and say: "Okay, that appeals to the morbid interest in violence by a minor, and therefore shouldn't be allowed on store shelves", and all of the sudden, you've got a store retailer being sued, the case goes to the jury, and the snowball effect that you mentioned starts to happen. And what that means for us creators during the brainstorming process, means that when we have to come up with the idea for a game, we have an alarm bell going off in our heads saying: "Wow. Somebody could consider this inappropriate under the California law." So, if we make this game, or if we go with this idea, nobody is going to publish it. Well, we better back off and really rescript what we make.  Games [would be] are pretty much cut down to the bare minimum of what would be considered "acceptable."  That is not freedom of expression.

AS: When I was doing the NPR interview this morning, one of the questions that I was being posed, I was being reminded that this idea portrayed the game industry as some group of people trying to appeal to the most morbid of children out there is completely false. There's this quite a bit of sense of responsibility inside of the games industry. When you're making games, when you're doing a game for Sony, I assume that it is present in the mind, that there sort-of is a tasteline for you as a creator that you're not comfortable crossing so it may not be good for your product.

TP: Absolutely. A lot of us here in Insomnia are parents, we have kids, a lot of us play games with our kids, and we are very careful about what our kids play. At the same time, we know who our gamers are, and we try to toe the line of responsibility and there are certain things we won't do in our games because we want to create great art. There are some things we think are appropriate and aren't.

AS: Is there an open discussion with you and whoever is publishing your game and what they're comfortable with putting out on the market, and how that works of what you put in the game?

TP: When we come up with a game idea, we try to look at the audience that we think will be playing the game, and we try to make sure we are appealing to that audience's interest. Whether it's thematic, gameplay, genres, or whatever. We feel like we know our audience very well, and what they're willing to put up with, so we make our games accordingly. We also are driven by our own creative interests, and we want to tell specific types of stories. We want to create certain types of characters, and that's reflected in our games as well. And so when those two are married, we come up with ideas that we really, really like, and that our audience will like, then usually magic happens. For us, as a studio, we really, make mature games and make family games, so we like the flexibility that gives us with our ideas. We love the idea that there is a rating system, so that when we make games that have what we believe is mature content, that mature content will not be sold to minors. I don't want the government saying that if you sell this game to a minor, it's going to be against the law. We trust parents to talk to their kids about what they're playing, to read the labels, to play with their kids, and make that call themselves. Not the government. It's, to me, abdication of responsibility for the government to step in and say: "We'll do the parenting with you."

AS: And it's also worth pointing out that the rating system from the ESRB, there was just a recent study from the Federal Trade Commission in terms of the ease of trying to understand what the rating system is, and a willingness of retailers to enforce that rating is much better than any other form of entertainment. DVDs, Movies, or music.

TP
: That's right. The retailers in the video game industry have a better track record than any other form of entertainment in terms of enforcing the voluntary rating system. And that's fantastic for us as developers, because we can make games that we are confident that the content we include will be sold to the appropriate audience. That's something that, for some reason our opponents, the people who are supporting the California Law, seem to ignore over and over again. That videogames have the best track record, yet they're saying videogames should be singled out and regulated by the government.

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AS: And there's parental controls, which is more than you can say for any other form of entertainment. If it's an M rated game, and you don't want your kid to play it, you can set up your 360 or PS3 to prohibit them from playing that.

TP: That's a great point, and something that's been completely ignored in that in this case. You, as a parent, have more control over what your kids play and watch simply through your hardware than any other type of media. But unfortunately, we are now the scapegoats for the politicians that want to be reelected.

AS: You're invigorated, I'm invigorated., obviously we have an audience out there that's becoming increasingly aware of what's going on. Is there something you would recommend to raise their awareness to both this issue and what they can do in their locality if there is a law in their state senate that is going through?

TP: If this law is upheld by the supreme court, there is no question that there will be other states stepping up and doing similar things, and trying to pass their own laws. That's why it's important for people to talk to their representatives, explain why they think what is going on in California is unconstitutional, so that those laws don't pop up. And remember, this is a society where we elect our representatives, and these guys are really interested in getting back in office, so if enough people say: I'm not going to stand for this, you want to get back in office? Forget it, I'm not voting for you. Then they're going to listen. I mean, that's the hope at least. And all we can do right now is make ourselves heard. I encourage everybody to join the VGBN, that's really important, go to their site and become a member. That way you'll hear what's going on. Watch G4. Just be aware of what's happening. And step up, and speak out.

AS: One of the mistaken understandings of what's going on from a lot of people that they think the movie rating system from the MPAA actually carries the force of law, and that is not true. And right now what works with movies is what works with games. And that's going to change if this law is upheld.

TP: That's right. It is interesting when you talk to people about the rating system. I've talked to a lot of friends, and they're just like: Yeah, it's just going to be just like movies, right? And it's sometimes hard to remember that you're 16, and you go to an 'R' rated movie, it is not against the law for the theatre's owner to let you in. Period. And that is something the movie industry fought hard for. Because they realized at the time, if it became illegal for folks under 17 to watch R rated movies, then the movie industry's first amendment rights would be abridged.

AS: I think it also speaks to the fact that, well this is a very big first amendment case. This is also a children's rights case. That this is a big deal for what the rights of someone who is under the age of 18 has is access to both art, culture, and literature.

TP: I wouldn't say it's necessarily a children's rights case. It's an overall freedom of rights issue because, ignoring age, the people who support California Law and minors, in particular, and I think that's great, we should always have the best interests of our children in mind, but we don't need the government getting in there what is appropriate and what is not for minors. We're parents, we talk to our kids, and there are as many opinions about what is or isn't appropriate for kids as there are people in America. So I believe it's up to families to decide what our kids should watch on TV, what films our kids should go to, and what games they should play.

AS: Just look at this sort of nightmare scenario. I think this has given you a headache just thinking about it. This law, no one has really considered what will happen if it is implemented. Looking at what is in these briefs, it's clear that there is something really, really confusing. And could you describe that?

TP: Yeah, you know, after reading the law, I'm pretty confused myself about how games would be retailed. Because the law states that any game that falls under this law should be labeled with an 18 sticker. However, games are already labeled by the ESRB, with the E, E10+, Teen, or M sticker. So we would have games that, we might have games that has a T rating and an 18 rating. What do I do if I go into a store, and see these labels on a game? Who do I believe? Am I gonna believe the ESRB, which is a qualified commission, reviewing every single game, and the footage in those games to decide what is and isn't appropriate, and labels clearly what the contents are? Or do I believe this kind of generic 18 sticker, which could be put on by the retailer, or the publisher, or somebody else, I don't even know.

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AS: What it seems to come down to is that they haven't even thought of what sort of government organization, and one that's only inside the state of California, will sit around viewing games to figure out if it somehow crosses this very, very vague threshold that they've established.

TP: What happens if I go outside of California, and I go to Virginia and I want to buy a game? I'm looking at it, and where's that 18 sticker that I saw in California? Oh, it's not there, what the hell?... It's going to be really confusing for people if this passes. I think it's going to open up a huge can of worms. One other challenge that we developers face is that who makes the call about what is or isn't appropriate under this law? We don't know. There is nothing in this law that states who is making this call. Is there some star chamber up in Sacramento looking at footage of every game? I doubt it. I think this is actually going to be more of a reactive situation where you have somebody who calls up their assembly men and says my kid just bought Ratchet and Clank, y'know what? Ratchet falls in lava and burns to death, that's terrible. This game should be rated 18. The assembly man goes crazy, and grabs a jury, and all of the sudden we have this big court case and costs tax payers a lot of money for something that was already taken care of by the ESRB. I mean, what the hell?

AS: You're allowing for one person's predilection and how they feel any given day to somehow dictate what people can and cannot see. That's terrifying.

TP: Yeah, it really is. I mean this just opens Pandora's box here. I think that we do well as an industry in terms of being responsible. In terms of educating consumers, especially non game-playing consumers, about what is and isn't in the games. And to turn that upside down right now is just inviting disaster.

Insomniac Games' Ted Price Talks Gaming, Violence, And The Law
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