I’m a couple days late on this one, you can blame physics homework for that. But this is a big deal.
I’ve followed the politics concerning video games for over 8 years, it originally stemmed from looking to protect my rights as a consumer, and now even more so as I’ve gotten older I recognize it as an important free speech issue. As a consumer of games and, to stereotype myself, a young person looking to protect my speech and fight for my generations media, its something important to me and something I feel like I can make a difference in by being informed.
So anyway, the Supreme court has ruled the California law, which would have fined retailers $1,000 if they sold a violent video game to anyone under the age of 18, to be unconstitutional under the first amendment.
I could rant and rant on the problems with the law: the sheer subjectivity of what constitutes enough violence to be affected by the law, the fact that it takes away the power of parents to choose what their children can and can’t play, the fact that contrary to popular opinion film restrictions for R rated movies etc. are not regulated by the government (it’s a voluntary system), that according to the FTC the ESRB “M” rated games are actually better enforced (not sold to anyone under 18) than film “R” ratings, and the fact that fictional violence in any other medium is not regulated.
It all really comes down to a simple premise, that goes beyond the obvious political maneuvers, and the “protect the children” mantra that is always used to restrict speech. But I’ll let Justice Scalia say it far better, and with the full authority of the United States Supreme Court.
“Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world),” Justice Scalia wrote. “That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”
Whatever new form of media or communication appears and becomes popular, the older generations will always fear that it will destroy society. This isn’t me saying anything like “old people just don’t understand” or anything like that, but it’s how we’re programmed. When I’m older and the new form of media pops up that allows people to recreate violence in a new way, I’ll probably think it’s dangerous as well. But the world evolves. Just the other day my ballroom dance teacher was telling us how the Waltz was feared and condemned for being such a risque dance. Life moves on, those waltzers grew up, and they found something to condemn when their youth created something new. Rock and Roll, Rap, and any and all literature that ever went mainstream (ever, seriously, books scare people, and rightfully so considering their influence), its going to keep happening. All it takes is for us to remember that free speech is a one way street, either everything’s allowed, or nothing’s allowed. It sucks when we can’t silence people who want to promote the KKK, who want to support fictional rape productions, or who want to protest around military funerals. But I’ve been personally challenged on those very points, and as painful as it is to support their speech, someone out there is thinking “well if Austin believes that fictional rape promotes real rape, doesn’t fictional violence promote real violence?” And in order to truly protect free speech, the merit of such speech cannot be determined by anyone, even a majority. The supreme court once decided that segregation was unconstitutional (using interstate commerce law), and if the media and modes of communication during that time were governmentally regulated or silenced based on the public opinion at the time, who knows how long it would have taken to move those ideas forward.
Another 30 years from now the idea of regulating video games will be considered absurd, and the ESRB rating will be believed as law just like film ratings are due to voluntary retail enforcement. This landmark decision today just brought that day much closer, and we can find another stupid way for our elected officials to waste tax dollars fighting pointless battles just for voter points. I just hope I still remember what it was like when I was fighting on this side, and don’t find myself shaking my finger at whatever unfamiliar thing becomes popular with the next generation.
For coverage on the decision you can check out the article in The New York Times and also look up the entire history of the law (signed in by the Governator, who of course didn’t build his entire career on violent media…*facepalm*) at the always useful Gamepolitics.com.