Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association–the landmark case that could’ve changed the way that video games get sold and developed–finally got an opinion handed down today. In the last day of the Supreme Court’s current session, the Justices ruled 7-2 in favor of video games, declaring that interactive entertainment should enjoy the same freedom of expression as books, film and other works of cultural production.
The core issue was the supposed danger of video game violence in titles rated Mature. California politician Leland Yee wrote a bill–later signed into law by the Governator– that would’ve made the sale or rental of such games illegal in the state. But the Ninth Circuit Court of California struck down the law as unconstitutional, saying that it restricted free speech for video games. Things moved to the Supreme Court last year with arguments made in November. Today’s decision marks the probable end of an era where legal recourse could be sought against games’ sensationalized power as evil entertainment. The opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia says, in part:
And whatever the challenges of applying the Constitution to ever-advancing technology, “the basic principles of freedom of speech and the press, like the First Amendment’s command, do not vary” when a new and different medium for communication appears.
The quotes in that piece of the opinion come from the landmark Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson case, which cemented the medium of film as one deserving First Amenment protections. The Court’s opinion goes on to say that other cultural forms haven’t been cordoned off the way that Yee’s law proposed for video games:
California’s argument would fare better if there were a longstanding tradition in this country of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence, but there is none. Certainly the books we give children to read–or read to them when they are younger–contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed. As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers “till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.” The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales 198 (2006 ed.). Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. Id., at 95. And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven. Id., at 54.
High-school reading lists are full of similar fare. Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake. The Odyssey of Homer, Book IX, p. 125 (S. Butcher & A. Lang transls. 1909) (“Even so did we seize the fiery-pointed brand and whirled it round in his eye, and the blood flowed about the heated bar. And the breath of the flame singed his eyelids and brows all about, as the ball of the eye burnt away, and the roots thereof crackled in the flame”). In the Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch, lest they be skewered by devils above the surface. Canto XXI, pp. 187-189 (A. Mandelbaum transl. Bantam Classic ed. 1982). And Golding’s Lord of the Flies recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other children while marooned on an island. W. Golding, Lord of the Flies 208-209 (1997 ed.).
The pro-gamer constituents were worried about Brown v. EMA, thinking that the Supreme Court as a judicial body trapped in amber, so focused on legal precedent and constitutionality that they might be out of touch with modern-day media. But, as seen above, the Supremes’ decision actually called out past instances where categories of creative works were held up as socially dangerous in laying down precedent for their decision. Excerpts from the opinion reference penny dreadfuls, choose-your-own-adventure books and the 1950s comic-book juvenile delinquency witch-hunt driven by Fredric Wertham. So, if the Justices do live in a bubble, it’s at least a porous one.
Reactions from interested parties have run to type. Yee’s office issued a press release saying:
“Unfortunately, the majority of the Supreme Court once again put the interests of corporate America before the interests of our children,” said the law’s author, Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco). “As a result of their decision, 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. It is simply wrong that the video game industry can be allowed to put their profit margins over the rights of parents and the well-being of children.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jennifer Mercurio, VP & General Counsel of the Entertainment Consumers Association. In a statement from the ECA, Mercurio says, “We had hoped that we would see this decision, and it’s been a long time coming. That being said, there will probably be one or two legislators who attempt to test these new parameters, and the ECA will continue to fight for the rights of entertainment consumers.”
Of course, today’s decision doesn’t mean that it’s okay for you to go get seven-year-old Johnny a copy of “Shadows of the Damned.” It just means the ssytems that are already in place–those ESRB ratings on the front of every box and parents’ common sense–work well enough to prevent the collapse of society. This may not be the end of the culture wars as regards video games, but this latest chapter will certainly tilt discussions about video games’ social worth towards the positive.