When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed last year to rule on a California law that would restrict the sale of violent video games to minors, I was relieved. Finally, I assumed, the nation’s highest court would rule that violent video games should get the same First Amendment protections as movies and books, instead of being regulated like pornography.
Turns out, my assumption was correct. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California’s violent video game law for good, with seven of nine justices in agreement. If you love video games and despise the way they’ve been demonized by politicians, read the first couple pages of the decision. It’s quite cathartic.
In a nutshell, the court declared that video games use familiar literary devices to tell stories, just like books, plays and movies. And because the United States has no history of regulating depictions of violence, the California law’s attempt to do so was “unprecedented and mistaken.” As for whether violent games pose a greater risk to society because of their interactive nature, the justices were unconvinced by existing research, none of which has found that violent games cause violent behavior.
Of course, the video game industry is thrilled with the decision, and California Sen. Leland Yee, who sponsored the bill, is disappointed. But what most interests me is whether the Supreme Court’s ruling will, in fact, finally stop individual states from trying to regulate video games. California is the seventh state to try, and the seventh state to fail.
A ruling from the Supreme Court may prevent other states from going down the same path, but it’s no guarantee. Justice Samuel Alito, in his concurring judgment, felt that California’s law was too broad in its description of violence (“killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being”). For better or worse, Alito said, society regards violence as a suitable feature of violent entertainment, so any future law would have to be much narrower than what California proposed. That at least leaves the door open to future attempts.
But even then, the existing court may not bite, and that’s okay. The games industry already has its own ratings system — just like movies — and works with retailers to keep minors from buying mature-rated games. Compliance is better than any other entertainment industry. In addition, game consoles have parental controls. As the Entertainment Software Association points out, state resources are better spent educating parents than fighting in court.