Violent Video Game Supreme Court Raises Stakes In America

The Supreme Court's decision today to hear a case about the potential criminalising of the sale of violent video games to children sparked divided reactions from the parties in the case and a call to gamers to get informed.

"I think gamers have a lot at stake," Mike Gallagher, head of the Entertainment Software Association told Kotaku today of the law that the state of California hopes to have found permissible by the Supreme Court.

The 2005 California bill, which was signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger but has been blocked from taking effect by state courts, would criminalise the sale of violent games to minors.

"It could have a distinct chilling effect," Gallagher said, "on the types of games that are made, the types of games that are marketed, and certainly the types of games that are sold, and how widely available they are. All of those things could be impacted."

The music industry voiced solidarity today with gaming.

"Culture and art thrives on the preservation of the First Amendment. Any law or effort to weaken First Amendment protection of free expression whether in music, film or video games or other creative content is ultimately a harmful thing," said Cara Duckworth of the Recording Industry Association of America.

The other side of this debate, which drafted and supports the California law disagrees about the potential impact and stakes of the case.

State Senator Leland Yee, the Democrat and child psychologist representing San Francisco and San Mateo who wrote the California bill, said that his legislation, was narrowly focused, targeting only the sale of "ultra-violent" video games to children. He predicted that approval of the law would have no impact on what games were made.

"This is not about Leland Yee trying to destroy the industry," Yee said in an interview with Kotaku. "This is not about Leland Yee trying to prevent any of you game [developers]from developing any more atrocious kinds of games. This is a free society. If you have the imagination to do something even more horrible with the technology, then god bless you. That's part of our freedom of expression here in America, but you just have to figure out when it's appropriate and when it's not appropriate. For me, as a child psychologist you ought not be doing it for kids."

Yee maintains that he is impressed with the technological development of games but is wary of how the interactivity of the most violent ones impacts children and influences their behaviour.

The state senator was backed today by California attorney general Jerry Brown, who petitioned the Supreme Court to hear this case. "It is time to allow California's common-sense law to go into effect and help parents protect their children from violent video games," he said in a statement.

The Supreme Court's decision to hear the case in its fall term keeps the argument about whether states may legislate against violent game going. It does not foretell whether the court will side with the video game industry, which cautions against chilling of speech, or the state of California, which maintains that the interactive nature of games and, in the state's view, the poor effectiveness of game ratings systems puts children at risk from violent video game content that can damage them psychologically.

The video game industry has been on the winning side of legal battles against California and other states for several years, as the research cited by states including California about the impact of games on kids has failed to sway judges. The string of victories has the industry and its allies talking confidently.

"We've successfully argued this case in 12 other courts that these types of laws are unconstitutional and that video games should be treated just like movies, music and other forms of entertainment," the ESA's Gallagher said. We've done that successfully a dozen times and we look very much forward to presenting our case to the Supreme Court and having the court issue a definitive ruling in this matter and putting an end to it."

Gallagher's comments were echoed by Bo Andersen, president of the Entertainment Merchants Association which was the other principal party in the lawsuit that blocked Yee's California bill from becoming law. "EMA obviously would have preferred that the Supreme Court decline review of the lower court decision finding the California video game restriction law to be unconstitutional, he said in a statement. "We are confident, however, that when the Supreme Court conducts its review, it will conclude that the lower court correctly analysed the law and reached the appropriate conclusion."

As the case proceeds eyes will also be on other entertainment industries to see if they join the video game business or stand aside to see if gaming will be treated as a distinct form of entertainment, subject to different laws about its content.

Concerned gamers were encouraged today to join the ESA's Video Game Voters Network. Among those pushing for it was Madden and Battlefield publisher Electronic Arts. "This is another sign that gamers need to wake up and get organized to protect their rights," EA vice president of public affairs, Jeff Brown, said in an e-mail. "Censorship and content restrictions are a very real threat to video games. Any gamer who has not registered with the ESA's Video Game Voter Network, loses the right to complain when government starts taking games off the market."

Gamers can take other actions too as they prepare for the showdown in the Supreme Court. One colorful one was floated by, of all people, Senator Yee. "You tell the gamers if the do a game about slicing my head off, I'm fine."


    Well... yeah...

    This law would be fair enough, dont sell innapropriate games to children. You wouldnt give a twelve year old some porn would you.

    Couple questions: If it is 'common sense' do you need legislation for it? That is, if what we're suggesting is that keeping ultra-violent games out of the hands of children is obvious, are the parents already doing it? If so, does there need to be a law?

    That said, Yee seems to have his own head on straight (for now anyway) and his proposal seems, from this report, reasonably balanced. It doesn't restrict the manufacture of games (a free speech act), only their sale (not a free speech act, I would think). I still wonder if its necessary.

    What is classified as ultra-violent?

    Throws into some sharp contrast the situation in Australia where its already a criminal offense to sell such games to minors, and our current governments wants more and more censorship-like control over electronic/digital media.

    Awesome, the bigger and more high profile this thing gets, the bigger the bitchslap when an intelligent judge realises that it's based on ESRB ratings which are set by a private company which effectively gives them the rule of law and are thus violating their constitution.


      The US film rating system (the MPAA system) is a voluntary system too. It isn't enforced by the government.

      So should the MPAA system be considered unconstitutional?

      Additionally, a private accreditation firm (i.e. the ESRB) only has power insofar as much as individual game makers accept it. This is a VERY different thing to the power the State has (and uses to enforce the law).

      Private classification schemes are NOT illegal and they do NOT usurp the rule of law. They are simply voluntary agreements between parties.

    All you readers at home should consider that the problem with this is not the sale of violent games to children (that's bad and should be stopped) but the fact that it is only games considered and it will put video games in a different category of classification from other forms of entertainment. This could pave the way for other legislation that could harm gamers. (Aussie R18+ issue anyone?)

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