This week video games reached a new precedent by making their way to the very top of the U.S. justice system, the Supreme Court. The same place where Alan Shore saved his friend Denny's life on Boston Legal, just as a point of reference. Except this time it's not representatives from Boston doing the arguing, it's the Golden State of California vs. the Supreme Court and video games.
I'm going to break this down into a couple parts and try to keep it simple just in case Steve Jobs reads this. However, I would urge you to read over the transcripts if you are interested in learning more, and I hope you are. Don't worry, they are actually quite comical at times.
Hit the break to find out why California has brought ultra-violent video games into the limelight and what this could mean for you.
Why this case is:
California state Senator Leland Yee believes that there needs to be more regulation and oversight of "ultra violent video games" than is presently available or allowed in order to prevent those types of games from making their way into the hands of minors, who they believe to be adversely affected by their contents. The purpose of the bill is to provide parents with a tool to prevent these games and their negative effects from reaching their children. Present California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senator Yee's bill, AB 1179, into law and now must defend its validity at the Supreme Court. G4's Adam Sessler recently conducted an interview with Senator Yee where he explains his reasoning behind the creation of this bill.
What this case is:
AB 1179 allows the State of California to legally pursue and impose criminal penalties such as fines in the amount of $1,000 per offence, concerning any business that is convicted of selling or renting violent games to minors. Whether or not a video game meets the appropriate standards is outlined in the description of bill and also below.
(d) (1) "Violent video game" means a video game in which the range
of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering,
or sexually assaulting an image of a human being, if those acts are
depicted in the game in a manner that does either of the following:
(A) Comes within all of the following descriptions:
(i) A reasonable person, considering the game as a whole, would find
appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors.
(ii) It is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community as
to what is suitable for minors.
(iii) It causes the game, as a whole, to lack serious literary, artistic,
political, or scientific value for minors.
(B) Enables the player to virtually inflict serious injury upon images of
human beings or characters with substantially human characteristics in a
manner which is especially heinous, cruel, or depraved in that it involves
torture or serious physical abuse to the victim.
(2) For purposes of this subdivision, the following definitions apply:
(A) "Cruel" means that the player intends to virtually inflict a high
degree of pain by torture or serious physical abuse of the victim in addition
to killing the victim.
(B) "Depraved" means that the player relishes the virtual killing or
shows indifference to the suffering of the victim, as evidenced by torture
or serious physical abuse of the victim.
(C) "Heinous" means shockingly atrocious. For the killing depicted in
a video game to be heinous, it must involve additional acts of torture or
serious physical abuse of the victim as set apart from other killings.
(D) "Serious physical abuse" means a significant or considerable
amount of injury or damage to the victim's body which involves a
substantial risk of death, unconsciousness, extreme physical pain,
substantial disfigurement, or substantial impairment of the function of a
bodily member, organ, or mental faculty. Serious physical abuse, unlike
torture, does not require that the victim be conscious of the abuse at the
time it is inflicted. However, the player must specifically intend the abuse
apart from the killing.
(E) "Torture" includes mental as well as physical abuse of the victim.
In either case, the virtual victim must be conscious of the abuse at the time
it is inflicted; and the player must specifically intend to virtually inflict
severe mental or physical pain or suffering upon the victim, apart from
killing the victim.
(3) Pertinent factors in determining whether a killing depicted in a
video game is especially heinous, cruel, or depraved include infliction of
gratuitous violence upon the victim beyond that necessary to commit the
killing, needless mutilation of the victim's body, and helplessness of the
What the problems are:
First, the guidelines for determining if a video game is appropriate for minors is rather vague and discretionary. How will game retailers, game developers and game publishers be able to evaluate this before critical steps in the production and marketing processes need to be addressed. Loose discretionary standards could have a huge impact on the overall success of the game and henceforth all parties involved with the game. Next, in the bill, it is stated that the violence depicted in video games has adverse effects on minors.
SECTION 1. The Legislature finds and declares all of the following:
(a) Exposing minors to depictions of violence in video games, including
sexual and heinous violence, makes those minors more likely to
experience feelings of aggression, to experience a reduction of activity in
the frontal lobes of the brain, and to exhibit violent antisocial or aggressive
(b) Even minors who do not commit acts of violence suffer
psychological harm from prolonged exposure to violent video games.
(c) The state has a compelling interest in preventing violent, aggressive,
and antisocial behavior, and in preventing psychological or neurological
harm to minors who play violent video games.
All of the above claims are based off of disputed research and studies that do not necessarily offer conclusive findings for the above to be true. In my opinion, these are the major technical points in contention with this law. Again, I urge you to read the transcripts where all the above issues have been raised.
The last issue and probably the most important issue I want to highlight falls within the realm of government censorship. This is not the first time a state government has tried to censor media but the real question is, should they be able to? Is this something that should be decided based on the values of society and not legislatures? The ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) is a well-known, non-profit regulatory body that acts as a tool to help concerned parties monitor the content of their kids' game media. So we see that there are already tools put into practice by the private sector, so perhaps government intervention is not necessary. If there was a real need for intervention then concerned parties would inform the game industry and/or the government. There just hasn't been any movements on a large scale by consumers or the game industry to make me believe that government intervention is wanted or needed.
I mentioned above that there might be consequences resulting from the imposed ban. The fact is that many minors play violent video games. In fact, many of the most popular game franchises are violent in nature. For example, Halo, Call of Duty, Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto and Metal Gear Solid are just a few examples. Truly concerned parents who do not allow these types of games in their home will take the necessary steps to keep them away from their children. Parents who were otherwise indifferent before may be persuaded to forgo purchasing a game because of the stigma from the government ban, which in my opinion is falsely representing the game industry and will hurt sales for sure. Also, consider companies like Game Fly that send games to residences instead of customers coming to them. Would it be against the law to allow someone who lives with children to rent violent games. If effects of improper exposure is the key argument here that seems to defeat the purpose. Of course there are many, many other effects to be discussed but I think you get the idea.
So let me know, what do you guys think? Should the government step in? What could this mean for the game industry?