ACLU Connects the Comics Code and Video Game Bill

by Betsy Gomez

In a recent post, Gabe Rottman with the ACLU discussed the connection between the self-censorship of comics and HR 4204, a bill introduced in Congress that requires that all games with a rating above E (for Everyone) carry a label warning parents that exposure to violent video games has been linked to violent behavior. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has already voiced their opposition to the bill, starting a a letter-writing campaign to legislators.

Rottman begins the article with a rundown of the events that led to the censorship of comics, including the publication of Fredric Wertham’s specious Seduction of the Innocent and Congressional showboating on the issue. Before linking the Comics Code with today’s furor over violence in video games, Rottman shares a rare instance of victory against Comics Code censors:

The pernicious effects of the Comics Code Authority — which was only abandoned in 2011 — were nowhere more obvious than in the treatment of Incredible Science Fiction #33, an EC title. EC owner William Gaines wanted to reprint a “pre-Code” story called “Judgment Day” about an astronaut who travels to a planet inhabited by two “races” of robots, one of which is subjected to institutional bigotry. The punch line of the story, a clear allegory for race relations in the United States at the time, comes in the final panel: the astronaut removes his helmet to reveal . . . he’s Black.

The Code administrator objected to that final panel, initially insisting that the race of the astronaut be changed. To his credit, Gaines went to the mat over the issue, telling the administrator (a New York state judge) that he would go to the press if the comic failed to receive Code approval. It got that approval.

Rottman then connects the dots between the Comics Code and recent attempts to censor violent video games:

But despite that rare victory, the industry code nonetheless led to years of self-censorship and the imposition of a crimped and limited notion of the artistic medium of comic books. The story of Seduction of the Innocent and Comics Code Authority illustrates the danger involved when Congress gets it in its head that a particular art form threatens the wide-eyed innocence of America’s youth.

Now it is happening all over again. Earlier this year, Reps. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) introduced H.R. 4204, a bill that would require every video game with a rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB, the equivalent of the Comics Code Authority) above E (for Everyone) to carry the cigarette-style admonition: “WARNING: Exposure to violent video games has been linked to aggressive behavior.”

Rottman discusses the specific problems with HR 4204, explaining the concerns that the ACLU and many Free Speech advocates have with the bill — concerns that are very similar to those that finally undid the Comics Code and led to its demise:

1. The warning the bill would require is simply untrue. As with comic books, there is little evidence that violence in video games has any detrimental effect on gamers. In fact, there is countervailing scientific evidence that video games may actually be beneficial in terms of enhancing gamers’ problem solving skills. And, as game developers have pointed out, the interactivity of some modern video games can lead players to more closely associate with game characters, and, even more than with other media, to feel guilt and other complex emotions through control over characters’ actions.

2. Any time Congress tries to turn the screws on a mass medium, that medium ends up needlessly self-censoring. In response to the Baca/Wolf bill, however, game developers are certain to pump the brakes in terms of creativity and narrative innovation. This is exactly what happened in the 1950s following the Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency and the industry’s creation of the Comics Code Authority. Groundbreaking horror and science fiction comics virtually disappeared, leaving the industry dominated almost exclusively by relatively sterile superhero comics.

3. The video game bill interferes with parental rights and obligations. The warnings will undoubtedly chill video game sales, including sales of titles that have little or no violence at all. A not-insignificant subset of parents will unquestioningly take these warnings to heart, and refuse to purchase games for their children (when, in fact, the unsold games would have no harmful effect). Recall that these warning labels would be required for any title above an E rating (there is only one rating below E: EC, for “Early Childhood”). Numerous games without any violent content, like Little Big Planet or the Sims, will be branded with the cigarette-style warning, pushing sales down and chilling speech.

Rottman closes the article with an admonition that congressional interference advocating for industry self-censorship — the interference that happened to comics in the 1950s and the interference that is happening with video games today — is rightly a violation of the First Amendment. You can read the entirety of Rottman’s article here.

Should HR 4204 pass and be implemented, it isn’t that hard to imagine similar steps being taken with other media, including comic books. Imagine a return to the Comics Code.

The CBLDF has been active in opposing such laws when passed. In the Brown v. EMA case, we wrote an amicus curiae brief citing the history of attempts to curb constitutionally protected content, including the Comics Code. The brief was cited by the Supreme Court in their majority decision to strike down a California law that would have made violent speech a category of unprotected speech, alongside obscenity.

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and reporting on issues like this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!

Betsy Gomez is the Web Editor for CBLDF.