There’s a conceptual conflict in the way that video games get framed in the cultural conversation: either they’re products thrown out in the consumer marketplace or they’re works in a creative medium.
That divide has framed much of the debate about the effects of violence portrayed in video games, which in turn has resulted in a governing body with a division dedicated to ratng the content found in games. The organizations in question–the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and the Entertainment Software Review Board-do similar work to the MPAA or RIAA, in that there’s a blend of promoting awareness and self-policing that happens under the auspices of each. But, because video games are so scaaary, the trust given to other mediums isn’t enough.
Sensationalistic reportage and political discussion about the psychological effects of playing video games has been around since the days of “PONG.” Recently, though the pressure for elected officials to “do something about it” has reached a fever pitch. When California State Senator Leland Yee was a State Assemblyman earlier in the decade, he authored California Assembly Bills 1792 & 1793, a bill prohibiting the sale or rental of games that portray “killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being” to people younger than 18 years old. Never mind the fact that such games are clearly labeled to prevent any such sales. Never mind the fact that most retailers require ID checks for the purchase of any such games. Governor Schwarznegger signed that bill into law on October 7th, 2005.
But, less than two years later, the laws were deemed unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte, for infringing on the First Amendment’s provisions for free speech. Now, that ruling’s going before the Supreme Court of the United States as the case titled Schwarzenegger v. EMA and their decision could mean game over for the law or reinstate it and give it an extra life.
So, the way that SCOTUS rules could not only affect where and to whom certain kinds of games get sold, but also the cultural understanding of what games mean and how that meaning is allowed to grow. If California Assembly Bills 1792 & 1793 get upheld, then video games will essentially be outside the category of protected free speech. That’s the same kind of categorization that’s protected books, movies, music and most any kind of artistic endeavor. A ruling in favor of Yee’s bills could create a chilling effect that not only effects the selling of video games, but would narrow the kind of content that creators would feel confident in addressing in their games.
Look, it’s pointless to argue whether a “Grand Theft Auto” game is making the world a better or worse place. Let the loudest voices on either side of that debate shout themselves hoarse. The larger concern is the way that this decision could undercut the right of a “GTA”-style game to even exist. The idea that such a judgment could come from minds that, though sharp, aren’t familiar with the video game medium is frightening.
With that in mind, the Entertainment Consumers Association (which isn’t affiliated with the ESA) is drafting an amicus brief. The ECA’s asking for gamers, free speech advocates and other interested parties to sign the digital petition that will be included in the amicus brief. The deadline to sign the petition is midnight tomorrow night. You can get more information at their site dedicated to the case: http://theeca.com/schwarzeneggervema.