The justices agreed on Monday to rule on whether the government should ban the sale of violent games to minors and fine stores $1,000 each time they fail to comply. At issue is a California law, passed in 2005 but struck down by lower courts, that defines violent games as works that depict “killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being,” in a way that’s offensive, appeals to morbid interests and otherwise lacks artistic merit.
So basically, the government would play tastemaker and decide what’s offensive and what’s artistic, what should be treated like porn and what should be treated like culture. If you can’t tell, and haven’t read our previous coverage, this idea unsettles me. I have no problem with video game retailers turning down minors who want to buy Grand Theft Auto, but government should not be at the helm. Video games have a system of self-regulation that’s among the best in the entertainment industry, not to mention parental controls on consoles.
Supporters of the California law argue that video games need the extra regulation because their interactivity makes them inherently worse for children than movies or other media. I’m not going to get into that debate here — check out this recent article by PC World’s Matt Peckham to get a sense of the back-and-forth — but the fact that six states have attempted violent game laws, and none have passed muster with their respective courts, shows that judges aren’t comfortable making video games an exception to the First Amendment.
I’m glad the Supreme Court is looking at this, if only as a way to put an end to all the madness. If the court sides with the games industry — and I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t — it’ll set a precedent for lower courts around the country, and stop the waste of more resources on these misguided laws.