Proposed video game law unconstitutional, unnecessary

By Luke Wilusz

The U.S. Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association on Nov. 2. The case is a dispute concerning a 2005 California bill that would make it illegal to sell certain violent video games to individuals under the age of 18. The U.S. District Court for Northern California and the U.S. Court of Appeals struck the law down on the basis of violating the First Amendment but the state appealed.

Though keeping inappropriate content out of the hands of minors is certainly an admirable goal, the proposed law in question oversteps its boundaries and would ultimately do far more harm than good. The law would legally restrict the sale of video games based on violent content, a restriction that doesn’t exist for books, films, television or other media. Violent games would be treated the same as pornography, legally prohibited from being sold to minors—though retailers already voluntarily check IDs to avoid selling inappropriate titles to minors.

There is a huge difference between violent content and pornographic content, however. Books, comics and TV shows that contain depictions of violence face no such censorship. Even newspapers and newscasts can contain images or descriptions of acts of violence, and nobody is pushing for those to be outlawed. If the law was upheld, it would essentially assert video games are not a protected form of expression under the First Amendment the same way as every  other medium.

In fact, no other medium faces legal restriction on content. The film industry, via the Motion Picture Association of America, voluntarily rates movies and theaters voluntarily enforce those ratings, but there’s no law saying a minor can’t legally see an R-rated film. If a law like this was passed and considered fair under the First Amendment, it would have to place equal restrictions on violent content across all media. Otherwise it is singling out one specific type of expression and applying unfair restrictions to it while all other types of media go unfettered.

The proposed law is also far too vague to be effective. It doesn’t clearly define what sort of violent content is acceptable or what would cross the line. It states games containing “excessive violence” would be prohibited under the law, but it does little to explain just what constitutes “excessive violence.” Game developers who wanted to comply with the law would have no way of knowing whether the content created would be acceptable or not. This could produce a chilling effect on the game industry, with developers choosing to avoid a certain type of content altogether because of confusion—essentially censoring themselves to avoid a vague threat of legal trouble.

In addition to the censorship questions, the law itself seems fundamentally unnecessary. In the same way the film industry regulates itself and enforces its ratings via the MPAA, the video game industry has set up the Entertainment Software Rating Board to regulate and rate game content. Every game commercially released carries an ESRB rating to let parents know what age group the game is most appropriate for, along with a detailed description of the content that earned the game its specific rating. Virtually all game retailers enforce these regulations, checking IDs and refusing to sell “mature” rated games to minors.

Furthermore, all current game consoles have options for parental controls to restrict what content children can access. Even if a child were to get his hands on an inappropriate game, parental control settings can render it unplayable without a parent’s permission. It’s up to parents to be aware of these things and decide what is appropriate for their kids.

The video game industry works actively to educate parents about game content and help them make informed decisions about what their kids can or cannot play. The necessary framework is already in place to protect minors from inappropriate content.

There’s no reason for the government to get involved. The proposed California law would harm the game industry without doing anything to improve the safeguards already in place to keep inappropriate content out of the hands of children. If the video game industry is being just as responsible as any other entertainment industry about rating and regulating itself, it shouldn’t be treated any differently under the law.