National Coalition Against Censorship reacts to public library policy against video games

The National Coalition Against Censorship is rallying against a new policy enacted by a New Jersey public library that empowers staff to bar patrons from playing certain video games on library computers.

The policy was voted on and passed in January by Paterson Library board members. According to The Alternative Press, library staff members petitioned for the right to ban patrons from playing games. Quoted at the time of the article, library director Cindy Czesak said that staff had already adopted an unofficial policy of discouraging video game playing, and that "they asked the board to give them something more official."

Video games are part of protected speech under the first Amendment, however, and the NCAC is arguing that banning video games is a violation of that. The organization recently fought against the removal of arcade games from rest stops after the Massachusetts Department of Transportation removed nine games deemed violent in stops along the Massachusetts Turnpike.

In a letter to Czesak and the library's trustees, the NCAC said that "the library has not offered any sound justification for removing access to specific games."

"This assumes that viewers will simply imitate behaviors represented in fictional settings without any independent mental intermediation," the letter reads, "a proposition that is palpably false and that the library implicitly rejects by offering access to all sorts of internet sites and maintaining a varied collection of books, magazines, videos and other materials.

"It is no more acceptable for a library to ban access to certain kinds of video games than it would be to selectively remove other lawful materials. Library patrons, including young people, have a First Amendment right to make their own decisions about literature, art, informational materials and entertainment without having those choices limited by the subjective views of library officials."

"Library patrons have a First Amendment right to make their own decisions about literature, art, informational materials and entertainment."

Speaking with Polygon via email, NCAC communications director Michael O'Neil said that the issue is just as much about open web access as it video games.

"In any case, the Paterson policy as it was reportedly written affects patrons of all ages and does not appear to have at all been motivated by concerns about 'Mature' rated games," O'Neil said. "And since we're talking about web browser games, I don't know to what extent ESRB ratings apply."

According to O'Neil, libraries should create positive opportunities for patrons rather than acting as a gatekeeper.

"Creating positive opportunities for patrons of all ages to learn greater computer and web literacy are far less restrictive than banning visitors from certain types of content, and will likely have better results," O'Neil said. According to O'Neil, content-neutral bans, such as time allotted or policies that guard against malware or viruses, do not violate free speech protections.

"At the library, kids socialize with their friends and play video games while surrounded by books, librarians and knowledge."

Video games have been successfully integrated into libraries on some level. The New York Public Library recently added video games to its film and book discussion groups. The American Library Association calls video games a "valuable resource" on the website's Frequently Asked Questions, and that playing games at the library is beneficial.

"The library is a safe and non-commercialized space," the FAQ reads. "At the library, kids socialize with their friends and play video games while surrounded by books, librarians and knowledge."

In November 2012, the Museum of Modern Art added 14 video games to its collection, including titles such as Eve Online, Portal and Pac-Man. It's not the first time video games have been acknowledged in an artistic light; the Smithsonian American Art Museum featured an exhibit of its own.

We have contacted several of Paterson's board members for comment and will update accordingly.

Update: In a response to the NCAC's letter, an employee of the Paterson Public Library said that no policy regarding gaming had been established, and that the board was still deciding on the matter. We are still waiting for an official response from the library's board members.

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