A minor dustup occurred this week in the world of video game
politics, one that implicates public thinking on First Amendment issues. In a
press release, public relations firm Hill & Knowlton (H&K) reported:
“Sixty percent of US consumers polled agree that the government should regulate the sale of violent or mature content video games while a slim majority (51%) agrees that the government should regulate mature content itself.” (emphasis added).
The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which opposes government regulation of video games, responded to H&K’s report with some unusually harsh words. There may be some bad blood between the two organizations based on prior dealings -- the ESA’s criticisms are here [UPDATE: H&K responds here and here] -- but the ESA didn’t discuss one significant qualification to the finding of 51% support for content regulation. A comparison of the results for two of H&K’s questions suggests there is less public enthusiasm for content regulation in this survey than the reported 51%. Here are the two relevant questions:
Q11. Do you think the government should regulate violent content in video games?
Q8. If a person running for office were to take a stand on the regulation of violent or mature content in video games, to what extent would that impact your vote for him or her?*
Presumably, if you think the government should regulate violent video game content, then a politician’s views on the issue should impact your vote for the politician. It may not be a big impact, but it should not be zero. Shouldn’t questions 11 and 8 yield the same results? Here they are:
Q11. 51% said, “Yes, the government should regulate violent content in video games.” 36% said, “No.” 13% said, “Don’t know.”
Q8. 33% said, “If the person was for regulation, I would be more likely to vote for him or her.” 16% said, “If the person was against regulation, I would be more likely to vote for him or her.” 51% said, “It would have no impact on my vote.” (emphasis added).
Why the loss of support for regulation between the two
questions? At least (51% - 33% =) 18% of respondents were pro-regulation
in question 11 but not in question 8.
We don’t need to think everyone has carefully thought-out views on this topic to try and make sense of the results. Changes in question wording often change the results. But why here? One possibility
is that question 8 suggests more of a commitment to government
regulation. It suggests some minimal effort on the part of respondents,
i.e., factoring the issue into one’s electoral decision. Question 11, by
contrast, suggests no effort; regulation is just being given away. Supporters
of regulation in question 8 might be the people who “strongly agree” with
regulation. Supporters of regulation in question 11 might include the people who
just think, “Sure, whatever.” These respondents don't really care about the issue in any significant way, but they will support regulation when it costs nothing more than an answer to a question to do so. (Another possibility is that the added reference to “mature” content in question 8 depressed the result; I think the first explanation is more likely, though there is no way to confirm this intuition based on this survey alone.)
Obviously, 33% support for government control is better than
51% (unless you like government control of expressive content). So the results of the survey may be better than the ESA thought. Nevertheless, 33% expressed a willingness to
translate their pro-regulation views into votes. Only 16% expressed a willingness
to translate their anti-regulation views into votes. So supporting regulation
may still be a net win for politicians.
NOTE: For a recent, general survey on the public’s views on First Amendment issues, see the 2007 State of the First Amendment report. Perhaps the First Amendment report's most analogous question to questions involving video game content regulation is this one: “Musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that others might find offensive.” A total of 42% disagreed with this statement. Specifically, 12% mildly disagreed and 30% strongly disagreed.
*I don't know if H&K randomized the order of the questions when administering the survey. I'm reversing the order of the questions here for purposes of the discussion.