For those of you who are unaware, and shame on you for your ignorance, this week is election week. By the time you read this it will be too late for you to fulfill your democratic duty, but it’s not too late to learn a little bit about an intriguing occurrence involving both entertainment and the Constitution. For the first time in American history, a lawsuit centering on video games is under examination by the Supreme Court.
The lawsuit centers on a California bill that was signed back in 2005 which attempted to regulate the sales of violent video games to minors. The bill never actually went into effect because it’s been in limbo and floating around federal appeals courts for the last five years. But while it’s easy for many people to dismiss the issue based on the grounds of not playing video games, they shouldn’t because the issue really boils down to whether or not this bill constitutes a violation of free speech.
Currently, video games are rated through a voluntary and self-regulated system with the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The system is similar to movie ratings, but according to a 2009 Federal Trade Commission study, the ESRB code was more stringent than the one used for movies and music. Retailers also regularly enforce it even though at this time it’s not legally required. But of course not every retailer upholds the same level of enforcement and that’s where most of the contention has come from.
The Parents Television Council (PTC), a group in favor of the California bill, occasionally conducts secret shopper stings. Recently the council found that 19 percent of its underage shoppers were sold M-rated games, a figure that is actually down from 2008’s 35 percent. So really the industry is getting better, without government regulation. But that doesn’t hold back one of the major arguments for proponents of the bill. “When it comes to minors, violence should be treated similarly to sexually explicit material,” said Zackery P. Morazzini, the California deputy attorney general who argued the recent case for the state.
According to the wording in the California bill, games that would be restricted to minors would involve “killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting” a human image, while also satisfying various other legal requirements, such as being without “serious” literacy, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.” This wording is terribly ambiguous.
First off, the term human image, may work well for games like Grand Theft Auto where all characters involved are clearly representations of humans, but some of the more violent games in recent years, such as Dead Space and the entire Halo franchise, don’t involve direct killing of humans. Yet the ESRB rates these games as Mature, so how would the California law work? If the billed passed, retailers would face confusion over the initial implementation and subsequent regulation of the bill, which would only hurt their sales in the long-run.
As the hearings in this case only began earlier this week, the outcome is clear yet. But the simple fact that the Supreme Court is addressing the medium of video games should finally solidify its status as art. If games are art, then any kind of government involvement should immediately grab a citizen’s attention. While politics are still fresh in your minds, I urge each and everyone of you to at least follow the hearings on what could potentially result in redundant and unnecessary government regulation and censorship, an reoccurring issue that we all should be concerned about, whether or not you are a consumer of video games.