Pop quiz, hotshot: Would you, as a parent, let your young child watch Saw or Hostel, read American Psycho or listen to Straight Outta Compton? If you said no, congratulations: You’re part of the vast majority of Americans who believe that not all content is appropriate for all ages. Second question: Do you think state or federal governments in the U.S. have the legal right to prevent children from accessing this content? The correct answer is also no: The Motion Picture Association of America and, to a lesser extent, the Recording Industry Association of America issue ratings for movies and music on a voluntary basis, but there is absolutely no legislation that says a twelve-year-old can’t buy a ticket and catch a matinee showing of Antichrist.
Last question, then: How do you feel about the fact that some politicians are trying to impose just that sort of legislation on videogames?
Proper answers can be found anywhere along the scale between confusion and outrage over the continuing drive of governments to hold videogames, as a medium, separate and distinct from all other forms of expression despite repeated Constitutional smackdowns. It’s been 30-some years since Space Invaders and we’re still waiting for Ragnarok, yet you’d think from the way some people carry on that the end-times are upon us and the only salvation is to turn videogame violence into a new form of pornography.
Twelve U.S. states have enacted legislation regulating the sale of videogames over the past decade; in each and every case – every one of them – the law in question was overturned on appeal for being in violation of the First Amendment. It’s a hell of a win streak. It also, by the end of this year or early into the next, may not mean very much.
In April, the Supreme Court of the United States announced that it would review a 2005 California law that would legally restrict the sale of violent videogames to minors. Like every other such law, it had been overturned by a federal court almost as soon as it was enacted, leaving the state to pay more than a quarter-million dollars in legal fees to the Entertainment Software Association; but California, led by none other than that paragon of family-friendly entertainment, Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, decided to fight. The matter was appealed all the way to the Supreme, and its decision to hear the case sometime in late 2010 or early 2011 means the real game is now afoot.
ECA President Hal Halpin said last week that this is “perhaps the single most important challenge [the videogame industry] has ever faced in the U.S.,” and that’s no overstatement. A Supreme Court ruling could enshrine once and for all the First Amendment rights of videogames, finally giving them equal footing in the eyes of the law with other forms of creative expression. Or it could rule that games, as an interactive medium, are an exception to the rule and that such protections do not apply. In other words, that individual states can (and most certainly will) regulate their sale and distribution.
Yet some gamers don’t see what the big deal is. A law regulating the sale of games to minors appears to be a perfectly reasonable approach, the thinking goes, just like there are laws keeping kids from watching R-rated movies or listening to violent, profanity-laden music. Except, as noted above, there are no such laws; there are voluntary rating systems maintained by industry associations, and we’ve already got that. It is the single most effective entertainment rating system in the country, in fact.
You better believe that this is a big deal. Even if your interest in videogames begins and ends with the latest iteration of Madden, this attempted undermining of the First Amendment should be more than enough to get your attention. “Freedom of speech” is one of the founding principles of the United States and, as Neil Gaiman noted a couple years ago, its guarantees the nation a unique place in the world.
“I loved coming to the U.S. in 1992, mostly because I loved the idea that freedom of speech was paramount. I still do,” he wrote in a 2008 blog post. “With all its faults, the U.S. has Freedom of Speech. The First Amendment states that you can’t be arrested for saying things the government doesn’t like. You can say what you like, write what you like, and know that the remedy to someone saying or writing or showing something that offends you is not to read it, or to speak out against it. I loved that I could read and make my own mind up about something.”
I’m appalled by the indifference toward the importance of the First Amendment apparent in so many people today, who now take it so completely for granted that they seem perfectly content to let it slip away in small pieces. And that’s what this is really about: Not whether kids should be able to pick up a copy of Liberty City Stories at the local Walmart, but whether videogames are a legitimate form of creative expression – and whether “freedom” is going to apply to new and innovative media, now and in the future.
If you believe the answer should be yes, then it breaks down very simply: You need to support the efforts of those lining up before the Supreme Court to oppose this California law. It’s not a waste of time, it’s not an empty gesture and it’s not optional. This trip to the Supreme Court is a great opportunity, and one that we squander at our peril. Read up on the topic at the ESA, the ECA and the Videogame Voters Network; there’s also a pretty good crash-course on ESRB ratings and the First Amendment right here. Sign the petition and send a letter to your elected representative. Make some noise about it and spread the word to others. Do something to ensure that your freedom of speech remains intact.
We’re playing for all the marbles now. Don’t dick around.
Andy Chalk isn’t actually American, but sometimes he thinks he should get an honorary badge or something.