The United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. EMA earlier today, deciding in a 7-2 vote to strike down a proposed California law to assist in the ban of sales of violent video games to minors. Originally known as Schwarzenegger v. EMA, The law would have given a government body the right to label individual titles as inappropriate and issue fines to retailers caught selling these titles to those under 18.

Justice Antonin Scalia explains the reasoning behind the final decision:

“The California Act… does not adjust the boundaries of an existing category of unprotected speech to ensure that a definition designed for adults is not uncritically applied to children. Instead, it wishes to create a wholly new category of content-based regulation that is permissible only for speech directed at children.  That is unprecedented and mistaken.”

This implies that there still is an issue regarding minors having access to violent video games, but this particular bill is not the answer.

Weighing in on the decision are California Senator Leland Yee, who expresses intention to retool the bill and try again, and Roger Ebert, who retweeted somebody else’s tweet linking to an article blasting the decision.

Yee claims that the Supreme Court ”…put the interests of corporate America before the interests of our children… Wal-Mart and the video game industry will continue to make billions of dollars at the expense of our kids’ mental health and the safety of our community.”

On the other side of things, the Entertainment Software Rating Board is understandably happy with the decision. They released a statement grateful for the Supreme Court’s faith in their rating system and retailers, also claiming, “In striking this law the Court has made clear that the video game industry effectively empowers parents to be the ones to decide which games are right for their children.”

What do you think? Is this court’s decision a big corporate shill or a valiant effort to thwart the United States’s encroaching ”nanny state” status?

6 Responses so far.

  1. Chris Phillips says:

    I honestly don’t see a problem with making it illegal to sell Little Timmy a copy of Grand Theft Auto. It’s a great tool to help parents manage the content their kids have access to.

    It’s also a great PR tool for the industry and will help to deflate the ‘violent videogame debate’. It’s largely gone away in this country since the moment you point out that kids cannot legally buy the games that are being objected to, the objectee doesn’t really have much of a comeback. It gives games a legal shield from such criticism and places the onus onto retailers and parents to ensure that the games Little Johnny is playing are actually suitable for him.

    I’m actually struggling to understand why there’s so much opposition to this in the US. Anyone care to enlighten me?

    Ron Ashkenazi   [ 22:19, June 27th, 2011 ]

    @Chris Phillips, The major counterpoint to this law is that there already are counter-measures in place to prevent minors from accessing violent games. Those games are rated mature, which means the buyer needs to have an ID in order to purchase them. If the retailer doesn’t card the kid, that’s the fault of the retailer. If the parent buys the game for the kid, that’s the fault of the parent. The video game industry shouldn’t be hampered based on what falls on parents and retailers to regulate.

    If the government intervenes, then that gives the gaming public less reason to understand video games as a cultural medium. Parents take less responsibility for their children and retailers are forced to take measures to prevent themselves from getting hit with these fines. That means if this bill passed, you’d have to ask for games like Mass Effect and God of War at the counter instead of being able to just pick them up and see for yourself.

    Those games will very likely sell a lot less. Developers will have to alter the way they make games so this doesn’t happen more. Such envelope-pushing like tasteful sex scenes and narrative shock value will become deal-breakers for games. Either video games get neutered, or development studios just plain shut down because it’s not worth it any more.

    TL;DR The government has free reign to bully the video game industry, parents get lazier, retailers get scared, developers take no risks, and we can just flush away all progress towards seeing video games as a valid artistic medium.

    But that’s just my views. Take it with a grain of salt.

    Chris Phillips   [ 22:41, June 27th, 2011 ]

    @Ron Ashkenazi,

    I’m gonna reply to you paragraph by paragraph.

    1. But what are the penalties for a retailer that doesn’t card? Do they exist?

    2. Does the bill actually specify that age restricted games should not be on general display? Because if so, I would agree that that’s bloody stupid. Age restricted games are displayed alongside non-rated games here on the shop floor. When a new GTA or Gears of War comes out, you’d better believe that the very first thing you’ll see are shelves stuffed with empty game boxes for you to check out!

    3. Age-restricting GTA, Red Dead Redemption, Black Ops etc has done absolutely nothing to hamper the sales of said games. One of those titles even (undeservedly) smashed every entertainment sales record going! If anything, a big fat red ’18′ sticker confers a level of cool that the game probably otherwise wouldn’t have; it’s strongly believed that GTA III slaughtered its way through the charts here precisely because of that alluring little sticker.

    I’m not saying it’s perfect, but properly implemented it can be a good thing for the industry, and rescind many of the arguments people hold against it.

    Ron Ashkenazi   [ 23:05, June 27th, 2011 ]

    @Chris Phillips,

    1. The penalty in this bill, last I checked, is $300 per game sold to a minor. Quite hefty.

    2. I agree with you here. There is no such stipulation, but you can bet that retailers will take it upon themselves to minimize the exposure of these games on the shop floor if it means even one minor might slip through with a copy. With the increased sensitivity towards sales of violent games, a retailer may receive complaints from parents in general regarding this exposure. One parent complaint can be massively inflated in end-of-year reports and in the media.

    3. You’re correct about that, too. Games probably WILL sell as well. The worry here is that the atmosphere of hostility towards anything violent in games might foster a robotic process of game development. On one side, sugary mini game compilation movie adaptations for the bargain bin. On the other side, shooters where you mow down alien robot zombie soldiers with no greater nutritional value. Games already are in a strange twilight zone where they’re called either too kiddy or too gritty. If that bill passes, that attitude would just perpetuate.

    Then again, I could be blowing this whole thing out of proportion. Just because it happened before in another industry doesn’t necessarily mean it would happen in this one. Being among the ‘games are art’ crowd, I’d rather get my thoughts out there than keep it in. My perspective is that government could fund some program that informs the public of how to properly understand games, rather than just sweep the miscommunication under the rug.

    John Bell   [ 23:14, June 27th, 2011 ]

    I’m gonna respond the same way. Not trying to fight, just answering questions and offering my 2 cents. :)

    1. There are none, and the Supreme Court more or less ruled out any such penalties being instituted. The game rating system is self-regulatory, much like movies.

    2. I’m not familiar enough with the bill, but I doubt it. As far as I know, the bill would’ve fined game retailers for selling violent games to minors.

    3. I agree with you here. M-ratings to little to prevent sales. However, it’s easy to forget that that’s largely because most gamers are adults. But I digress.

    Anyway, according to the FTC, game retailers are quite good at preventing sales of M-rated games to minors. They’re much, much better at it than movie theatres and music retailers. That’s more or less all people opposed to the bill want. The courts have allowed every other entertainment medium to self-regulate without the legal system dictating things.

    The reason the SC ruled against it, I imagine, is that they hate regulating speech without clear, explicit parameters for what’s being regulated. For that reason, it’s legal to prevent the sale of porn to minors, because it’s easier to decide what’s porn and what isn’t. With violent games, well, who was to decide what’s too violent and what didn’t quite cross the line? What about Mass Effect 2, which is M-rated, but about as explicit as a PG-13 movie? It doesn’t help that countries with laws that specify exactly what is too violent and what isn’t have gotten some very bad publicity and are criticized for censorship (see, Left 4 Dead in Australia). When it comes to speech regulation, being vague and limiting a whole medium in areas where other mediums have no limits are both big no-nos. It’s not about “what’s best for little Johnny”. It’s about Constitutional precedent, and the SC did not want to set a new one that opened the door for more regulation of free speech.

  2. Kyle Gaddo says:

    Some Wal-Mart employees are on point. I got carded when I bought FEAR 3 and Shadows of the DAMNED the other day and I’m 25-years-old.

    I actually thanked them for doing that, because it’s good business to do so.

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