This Tuesday the Supreme Court will hear a case against California's so-called video game violence law intended to keep certain games from being sold to minors. It may sound familiar: The 2005 law, championed by California Senator Leland Yee, was struck down twice by lower courts. Silly and useless, the law neither protect kids nor improve the game industry -- and is really a waste of time and money. The court needs to recognize this for the third time.
Lawyer Adam Cohen puts succinctly in the latest Time magazine:
California's law makes it illegal to sell minors video games that meet an elaborate test: they must involve "killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting" a human image, while also satisfying various other legal requirements, such as being without "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors."There are several reasons this law has been ricocheting through the legal system.
The root of the problem is the misconception that children are the primary video game audience. The average gamer is a 34-year old male. The Electronic Software Association determined that he probably has the proverbial wife and two kids. Is he of sound judgment? Enough to avoid the umpteenth Saw movie in theaters tomorrow and the next curse-laden Snoop Dogg album if he wishes. More importantly, he determines the media viewed within his household using the ratings systems offered by all major media, including the Electronic Software Rating Board ratings for gaming.
Other media have long had to fight to prove their artistic worth. Explicit movies "without artistic merit" were censored, if not outright banned by the conservative Hays Code of 1930 until the 1970s Supreme Court admitted that artistic merit, and what counts as excessive, is objective.
An even more apt parallel is the comic book industry. Another medium mistaken for a child's artform, comics suffered censorship under the Comic Book Code of 1954 which restricted depictions of violence, sexuality and other potentially offensive expressions. It isn't a stretch to say that the rich graphic novel culture, and the uber-adult but artistically beautiful movies inspired by it like The Watchmen, 300, and The Dark Knight, would not exist had that code remained in effect.
The biggest issue with the video game bill is that it will neither protect kids nor help the gaming industry. Anecdotal, if not statistical evidence shows that tweens and teens will seek out entertainment despite societal disapproval, if not because of societal disapproval. As I found in my book Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture, banning adult-oriented games, as happened to the explicit version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas momentarily in spring 2005, has historically increased sales. You can call it the brown paper bag effect: Try to cover something up and it instantly piques curiosity.
Despite the temporary boost "explicit" games can receive, game companies and their artists will be hurt in the long run. If the law stands in Supreme Court, the ability for a game to sneak past the barrier will determine what goes in and what is taken out of a title. Companies are already pressuring artists to change content based on what Walmart (WMT) will or won't carry. Imagine the amount of repression caused by a federal law, especially as the average video game cost two years and a few million to produce. (The interactive art watchdog group Video Game Voters Network has set up a Supreme Court petition against the California law.)
In other words, the misplaced law only makes mature games more appealing to young audiences and less innovation within the video game industry, both of which will have ramifications in art and commerce for years. There's a reason it hasn't fared well in the courts so far.