After bouncing back and forth between several appellate courts, the United States Supreme Court ruled against California State Senator Leland Yee’s bill to restrict and penalize the sale of violent video games to California minors. Yee’s bill, which got signed into law by former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 and was immediately thrown into legal limbo via a series of lawsuits, wanted a large, two-by-two inch warning sticker put on the cover of games deemed violent by the state government, and retailers who sold these games to minors would be subject to a $1,000 fee per incident. This warning system would have been in addition to the industry’s current, voluntarily imposed ratings system and board– the ESRB.
Was this a victory for gamers? Families? Or did the Supreme Court rule in favor of big corporate businesses? In their written decision, the justices suggested a lighter law that did not “abridge” first amendment freedoms in the interest of censorship could be legally feasible and perhaps considered. That may mean this issue is far from put to rest. We share our reactions below.
I’ve been following this case ever since Gov. Schwarzenegger signed said video game law back in 2005, and not just because I’ve a vested interest in it– I’m Californian and Chinese, much like the much-maligned Senator Leland Yee– and I’m glad we’ve finally reached this milestone. Certainly it makes me feel a lot better about the situation, especially in light of decisions made by the National Endowment of the Arts that make video games a legitimate art form as far as government is concerned. That said, this kind of milestone has been reached before– back in 2007 Judge Ronald Whyte issued an injunction against Schwarzenegger’s law , and all that really seemed to do was slow these guys down. I’m not saying that the Supreme Court’s decision is negligible. Rather, I know that Senator Yee and his followers will continue to try and find chinks in the armor, even if 7-2 is rather decisive. That seems to be their M.O., anyhow.
As for victories, I think it’s too early to say. Certainly it’s a milestone, but is it the end of the road? I don’t know. But the ESA is willing to fight, and the Video Game Voters Network grows bigger every day. Even if nobody else realizes the significance of this law, I think that video game enthusiasts like us have become much better-informed about our rights as consumers and the legal battle against the sale of video games. And if “victory” means “becoming more knowledgeable and thus prepared for future fights”, I’d say all of us won something.
First of all, bear in mind that this law restricted the sale of violent games to minors. That means that anyone over 18 was unaffected.
Now, my initial understanding is that the Supreme Court had thrown the law out because of its nebulous wording. Upon reading the Court’s majority opinion, though, it became clear that the court did not merely throw the law out because of its design. Instead, the Court issued a sweeping ruling that put the brakes on any attempts to ban the sale of games to minors. The majority writer, Justice Scalia, an arch-conservative writing for a very bipartisan majority, sharply refuted the psychological and moral arguments of California. While conceding that he found some violent games disgusting, he insisted that the First Amendment allowed even disgusting speech. Further, he dismissed the suggestion that kids were exposed to violence solely through games, pointing out that many children’s books and cartoons, such as Bugs Bunny, are violent.
That all said, I do not totally square with the Court’s ruling. It’s one thing to sell M-rated games to adults; it’s quite another to sell them to kids. The idea of a 10 year-old being able to go in and buy one of the God of War or Grand Theft Auto games seems somehow wrong to me. Granted, parents might go and buy the game for them, but at least then there is some sense that parental consent is involved. I also happen to think that games, by their visual nature, are potent forces that have ratings for a good reason, just as movies do, and it makes little sense to me to apply different standards to games over film. After all, that same 10 year-old can’t go see an R-rated film alone, can they?
Overall, this is certainly a victory for the gaming industry and perhaps also for those who think the government is overbearing (which it sometimes is). But I have some misgivings about whether or not this was the right decision.
I have to say that I’m very glad to see the decision that the law was unconstitutional was upheld. It was. It’s as simple as that.
Now, I’m not saying I support minors buying violent games. The fact that minors manage to get their hands on M-rated games is a frustrating problem, but it’s not one that creating new laws will fix. That’s because there is already a system in place that has been adopted by most retailers: the ESRB rating system. If it isn’t already working, what difference would adding a law make?
This law once again gives the responsibility for what children are playing to the right group: parents. Because really, that’s who should have final say over what their children are playing, not the government.
Marc N. Kleinhenz
Does this mean that I can *finally* play Night Trap without fear of prosecution? (Or nightmares?)
This was not in any way a surprise to me. Numerous, similar laws had all been shot down by the lower courts, so it seemed unlikely that the Supreme Court would pull a complete 180. And then of course there is that whole Constitution thing-a-ma-jig, which generally discourages the placement of prohibition on most forms of art and media. Pornography is the exception, but I figure most rational human beings would be hesitant to lump many M-rated games in with hardcore porn.
As for the very real problem of kids getting their hands on games well above their own level of maturity, I think retailers should look towards Gamestop and their zero tolerance policy: sell one M-rated game to a minor and you’re fired. During my time with Gamestop, this was never a problem, but I imagine other retailers, like Wal-Mart and other big box stores, are less focused on this issue.
And did us, the gamers, win? Not really, because nothing has really changed and there are plenty of idiot congressmen with no understanding of the Constitution or the balance of powers who are bound to take another swipe at the industry sooner or later. The losers? Well that would be the American people, who had millions of their hard earned dollars wasted by ego maniacs on self-righteous crusades who couldn’t see the impenetrable legal precedent through their own, warped perception of right and wrong.
M. Noah Ward
The videogame industry has long recognized that a ratings system was needed for its games, and said system prevents most (not all) sales of mature-rated games to minors. Where minors even get the money to buy these expensive games on solo trips to the mall or Wal-Mart is another question altogether, but as noble the intentions to make sales of these games to minors even more difficult (or appealing, since some kids do love to break the rules), that doesn’t change where the real problem is, and that’s at home.
After hearing over Xbox Live countless pre-pubescent children playing Left 4 Dead, Call of Duty and any other gory, violent shooter you can think of– and swearing like sailors, no less– I’ve only solidified my opinion that the problem is less with retailers and much more with parents. I strongly doubt a majority of those surly children bought these games for themselves. They received the games as gifts from family or friends, or they’re just playing their older sibling’s videogames with impunity. And really, the only way to really solve this is to ban the mere creation of violent videogames, so no one ever can play or gift them, and that’s totally absurd, not to mention a disservice to the millions of us old enough to play and enjoy games made for mature audiences.
Coincidentally, I also think it’s absurd to get government– either state or federal– involved in evaluating videogames for their content. Let the industry handle it. If the industry is doing a less-than-satisfactory job, no, Mr. Yee, it is not time for the government to take over. It’s time for the industry and retailers to reevaluate how and where it can improve its system, with everyone understanding that nothing will be 100% fool-proof. There are still thousands of kids out there sneaking into R-rated movies and downloading music and videos with explicit language and images. We can only hope to remedy these problems; we cannot completely solve them.
What are your thoughts on the Supreme Court’s rulings? Is it a straight out-and-out victory or the makings of a tougher (albeit constitutional) law in the future? Yee has said the battle’s not over. Tell us what you think.