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And Justice for All

As California’s case against video games made it to the Supreme Court, transcripts of the oral arguments from both sides were posted online. You could easily be forgiven for skimming over it. It’s lengthy, there’s some legal-ese thrown about, soft science, and of course esoteric rhetoric on what constitutes art, free speech, and obscenity. There’s yet to be a ruling in favor of California’s attempt to make it a civil penalty for violent video games to be sold to minors, specifically retailers paying a fine up to $1,000.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a bunch of politicians get together and decide video games are unhealthy to children, much more so than any other form of entertainment. They bring their case to court and cite numerous studies by experts that show aggression and violence is increased with exposure to violent video games. There is much hemming-and-hawing between both sides and ultimately the court decides video games are a form of free speech, therefore having the same rights as any other type of media. There’s nothing to indicate that this ruling will be any different from the others—but what if?

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It’s really quite bizarre to see Arnold Schwarzenegger backing legislation that would limit the sales of violent media considering he’s made a career out of killing people while spouting witty one-liners like “It’s not a tumor!” But in a state where Conan of Cimmeria is the governor just about anything flies.

Incidences of blatant hypocrisy aside, there are many other holes to be poked in California’s argument. No other type of questionable material being sold to minors is a civil penalty. Yes, minors aren’t supposed to be sold tickets to R-rated movies. Still, minors do see films and other media they’re not allowed to. The difference is that when that happens, it’s not illegal to do so. It is not a punishable crime to sell that ticket to a minor. That could change, though. Or at least change when it comes to the sale of video games.

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California’s success depends on making a convincing argument that video games are a special, magical type of interactive medium that’s so alien from TV, books, movies, music, etc. that they should be treated differently. Also that exposure to violence in video games is somehow exponentially more damaging to a minor’s psychological development more than a violent film. The evidence produced in support of this was Postal 2, released in 2003.

Now I firmly believe that game’s disc is only good as the substitute for clay pigeons on a shooting range, but it does have every right to be as available to everyone just as much as Jackass 3D has every right to stink up the multiplexes. If you’re not familiar with that game, don’t worry—lots of blood, infantile humor, and urination. However, lack of merit does not exclude it from being a form of artistic expression.

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An R-rated film is an R-rated film whether we’re talking about The Godfather or Friday the 13th. What California is proposing to do is categorize M-rated video games like they were hardcore pornography—unsuitable for minors, and selling it to them as an unconscionable act. So by extending that logic, every single M-rated should be treated just like Postal 2. Crazily enough, I don’t think the value of video games should be measured against Postal 2 of all things.

We could spend hours rattling off M-rated games that give us much more than just entertainment value—games like Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock, Half-Life, or Braid just to barely scratch the surface. Personally I’d put Silent Hill 2 up against anything Hollywood’s churned out. Regardless of your personal preference in gaming, all of those titles and many more would be classified as obscene and illegal to sell to minors, setting legal precedent.

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As previously mentioned, studies are always trotted out as proof of violent video games having an evil influence on youth, which is another flimsy branch of California’s argument that begs to be trimmed. Unfortunately those studies (which are so numerous that you might as well just pick one at random) are largely inconclusive. The only phenomena at work is a response to a form of stimulation: a minor plays a violent video game while their vitals are monitored. The examiners see the kid’s synapses are firing, so it must be the game is increasing their levels of aggression.

To break away from pointing out flaws in the argument, it isn’t what’s happening now that has me particularly worried—it’s what it might eventually lead to. Other entertainment industries are also worried, as they rightly should, since it may very well be their heads on the chopping block next. It’s not a large step to think that film, music, or comic books could receive the same treatment. There’s just as much violence in those mediums as games. In fact the transcript of the oral arguments already calls into question what makes some sex and violence acceptable while other forms of it are not, as well as what constitutes “deviant violence,” which isn’t terribly illustrative. The entire case being brought before the U.S. Supreme Court creates an incredibly slippery slope.

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If I didn’t make myself perfectly clear before, let me do so now: video games have the same rights as all other mediums of entertainment and should not be put into some alien category where it’s subjected to censorship. To argue that they are somehow more harmful than other media is a fallacy. I can’t predict the ultimate outcome of the case, nor can anyone else, and even if California loses there’s nothing to prevent some other entity from suggesting similar legislation, which leads me to believe this isn’t going to be the last time we’ll hear about such proposed measures. Even so, it’s crucial that the outcome rules in favor of the video games industry—and all entertainment industries in general—and for the medium of video gaming to have some truly tangible, effective legal protection.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in March 2010.

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