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Illinois Video Game Ban Bill Faces Uphill Legal, Scientific Battles

Joyram Chakraborty, an associate professor of computer science at Towson University, says laws have been struggling to keep up with evolutions in the world of video games.

A state representative wants to ban violent video games. He says they contribute to increased carjacking in Chicago. It’s far from the first time state lawmakers have taken the idea for a test drive.

Illinois and other states have tried, and failed, to pass bans on those kinds of games in the past. Experts say the new bill isn’t realistic.

Marcus Evans Jr., D-Chicago, is the state representative behind the bill. He represents the south side of the city, and he’s an assistant majority leader in the House. Evans said he’s worried games affect mental health, especially among young people.

“The thought is, do they think this is acceptable behavior?” said Evans. “I'm looking at things that are supportive of carjacking and looking to oppose those things, and to bring the question of the acceptance of certain behaviors.”

The bill defines violent video games as those where a player controls a character “encouraged to perpetuate human-on-human violence in which the character player kills or otherwise causes serious physical or psychological harm to another human or an animal.”

Evans said some people are impressionable, and he said there needs to be conversations about the standards being set in American society.

“With Trump grabbing women by their genitals and insurrections, you know, where are we going as a country? What's acceptable?” said Evans.

Evans said he wants to have discussions to improve his community.

“There's many different ways in which causes people to participate in deviant activity,” said Evans. “I'm just exploring, maybe this could be one, maybe it's not. That’s the point of the discussion.”

Are video games and violence linked?

The debate whether video games lead to real-life violence is not new. It’s also a question researchers have tried to answer for years.

In 2005, University of Illinois Professor Dmitri Williams put out what academics called the first long-term study of whether there is a link between video games and violence. The study didn’t find any strong effects, but the debate goes on. 

“This may be a small but real effect, but it's so small, compared to the other 99 point something percent, that that's probably where our attention should be,” said Williams.

He’s now an associate professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg. 

Williams said there are other well-documented causes of crime, and he said video games have become a red herring to sweep away uncomfortable conversations.

“Games are no panacea,” said Williams. “They're both good and bad, just like say, television or books have good and bad. It's not an all-or-nothing kind of thing.”

Similar laws stopped in courts

The same year as Williams’ 16-year-old study, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a bill into law that would have prohibited sales of violent video games to children. Retailers and gaming companies took the bill to district court, where judges overturned it on free speech grounds.

Williams said he thinks Evans’ bill would not fare much better.

“The science is not tilting the odds back, and they would have to tilt back massively to get past the free speech principle,” said Williams. “The evidence is just not even close to that.”

The Supreme Court has also weighed in on the matter. In 2011, the court decided a case on a California law banning minors from buying violent games. The court ruled 7-2 that video games, just like other forms of media, are protected under the First Amendment. 

Joyram Chakraborty is an associate professor of computer science at Towson University in Maryland. He co-authored an article on the connection between public policy and video game violence. 

Chakraborty said games have evolved significantly since the previous Illinois bill, and, for that matter, the early years of video games.

“I think gaming has permeated into many factors in society and across several diaspora, that criss crosses things like your socioeconomic divides (and) things like ethnic divides,” said Chakraborty. 

Chakraborty said even setting aside the court rulings, he’s not sure lawmakers understand the dimensions of modern video gaming.

“We're growing faster and faster, and technology’s moving faster and faster, and everything is moving faster and faster,” said Chakraborty. “But yet, the laws and the requirements and the support mechanisms have been struggling to keep up, and they're continuously going to struggle to keep up.”

Differences of opinion

State Rep. Marcus Evans Jr. is standing his ground. He says because studies are based on individual experiences, he’s not sure studies on video games and violence tell the whole story.

“Everybody has a different reason for committing a crime,” said Evans. “You know, some people are impressionable, but some people are training criminals. I mean, there's all different facets of reasons why someone is choosing to participate in deviant activity.”

Academics differ. If the connection between video games and real-life violence does exist, Joyram Chakraborty said a ban probably isn’t the way to go.

“There are different ways to approach this rather than, ‘I'm going to ban it because it worked 10 years ago, they failed, and I'm gonna try it again,’ because that's the classic definition of insanity,” said Chakraborty.

Evans said he hopes the law and society have swung his way since the last time this was tried.

“I think when you have a conviction or belief, you push for that,” said Evans.

Chakraborty has an alternative. He said educating people on sensible computing from an early age could help them make informed decisions for themselves. He said nobody can make any given person a good or bad driver. It’s about offering the choice.

“We give them the tools, and then let society make their own decision going forth,” said Chakraborty.

He said it wouldn’t be the finishing point, but it would at least start a conversation.

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Christine Hatfield, a graduate student in University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting program, is WGLT and WCBU's PAR intern for the first half of 2021.