Supreme Court justices show refreshing gaming knowledge

The landmark trial opened yesterday between California and the Entertainment Merchants Association over a reckless state law that would put new restrictions on retailers selling violent video games. The Supreme Court showed just how blatantly silly the law was by pointing out a whole bunch of loopholes and rhetorical questions.

While everyone was going to the polls and voting in the midterm election yesterday, members of the Supreme Court were also already trying to figure out how they will vote in the California case.

Based on comments made in just this very first day of the hearing, it seems like the justices are all set to dismiss the case. Many of them have already heard this kind of thing before. There is certainly no shortage of Supreme Court cases on video game violence. With those cases, there is a 100% track record of the video game industry winning. No one has ever managed to put some sort of government-enforced control on violent or obscene video games. No one.

And this California law is nothing new. In fact, it’s even more stupid than any video game law we’ve ever seen. The law, which passed in 2005, says retailers cannot, under penalty of law, sell any video game to someone under 18 if it has “deviant” or “morbid” violent content in it. If the game allows players to “relish” in violent actions, it’s illegal to sell it to a minor.

And yes, of course, the law passed. Because of the feat mongering in this country, clueless lawmakers found nothing bad to say about it. Of course – why would we want children to be participating in torture simulators? Who would object to that? But in reality, this law is stupid. There’s no other word for it.

First off, it would actually require stores themselves to decide what games are too violent. If Best Buy says GTA is okay, and sells a copy to a 17-year-old, Best Buy could be sued. It would then have to be decided in front of a court whether or not the game was too disturbing for public consumption.

Hmmm…if only we had an independent ratings board that fairly evaluated the appropriateness of every game sold in the major retailers across the country. Oh, wait, we do. And it’s doing a better job than ever. The Entertainment Software Rating Board now receives consistent high marks from some of its once most biting critics.

Just last year, the FTC commended the ESRB as being the best media ratings organization in the country. Better than movie ratings. Better than album “Parental Advisory” guidelines. Better than anything. And yet, California thinks the government needs to get involved. Stupid.

If you listen to the California pundits in support of this law, it makes you want to pull your teeth out. These clueless lawmakers just put out their sound-bytes about protecting children and look good on camera. But in truth, they are clueless. I, for one, am ecstatic that the Supreme Court realizes this BS and calls it out for what it is.

“You are [clearly] asking us to create a whole new prohibition…what’s next after violence? Drinking? Movies that show drinking? Smoking?” said Justice Scalia.

Justice Ginsburg noted, “Why are videogames [so] special? How do you cut it off at video games?”

As a gamer I almost never agree with the way powerful people in the government look at the industry. But this early skepticism by the justices in this case is a refreshing approach to this decades-old issue of video game violence.

However, it’s not a unanimous opinion by any means. Other justices say children do need to be “protected” from disturbingly macabre content. There are already carve-outs for excessively gross content in the First Amendment, though, and the ESRB’s existing system already effectively weeds out games that are too disturbing – its “AO” rating is the most restrictive and essentially bans it from retailers and console manufacturers. So passing a law like this is a total non-issue.

After the Columbine incident, I personally was very much in favor of government regulation of violent video games. It showed that games are in fact a different animal and it would make sense to regulate them separately from movies or TV shows.

But the ESRB has proven itself to be a very competent arbiter of the video game industry, and ensuring that games are advertised and packaged appropriately so children are not accidentally exposed to indecent content.

Anyone who thinks video games are still some sort of devil’s tool – I’m talking to you, middle-aged pundits, Matt Lauer, and crusty politicians – is a bloated, stubbornly uninformed, self-aggrandizing jerk who can’t step out of a 1990s time capsule. I look forward to the day when these individuals finally see the light that the actual, real world sees, but I’m not holding my breath for that.