Proponents of free speech, artistic expression and the video game industry at large celebrated today when the Supreme Court struck down California’s proposed law against violent video games in a 7-2 vote.
I wrote about this case in some length last year, when it was first going before the Court. I stand by everything I said then, and thankfully, the majority of the justices seem to agree.
You can read the entire decision, as well as the dissenting opinions (from Justices Breyer and Thomas) here. Or, if legalese scares you and you’re terrified of large PDFs, Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek has a pretty good write-up of the highlights.
But the most important things to note, in my opinion, are these: Games were defended as artistic expression the same way that books and movies are, and the Court was far from convinced that the interactive nature of video games make them any more harmful to children then other forms of media. The decision doesn’t seem to pull punches in calling many aspects of California’s proposed law stupid and pointless (my words, not theirs).
“the basic principles of freedom of speech … do not vary’ with a new and different communication medium” – US Supreme Court
“Video Games qualify for First Amendment protection … they communicate ideas through familiar literary devices …” – US Supreme Court
Not everybody was happy about the decision, of course. Surprising no one, California Senator Leland Yee, longtime champion of laws against video games said among other things, “It is simply wrong that the video game industry can be allowed to put their profit margins over the rights of parents.” He also said that the ruling “put the interests of corporate America before the interests of our children,” according to PC Magazine.
Really, Leland? What rights have been taken away from parents? The right to say, “No,
you cannot bring this violent media into my house”? Because I’m pretty sure my mother has exercised that right time and time again. I wasn’t able to play Resident Evil until I turned 16, and that was after a long letter-writing campaign finally succeeded (seriously, I used to write my parents well-reasoned letters explaining why I should be allowed to do certain things). I didn’t play any Grand Theft Auto games until I was out of the house and in college.
Parents still have all the power, here. They always have. If a parent doesn’t see that their child is doing things that are deemed inappropriate (be that viewing porn, singing music with inappropriate lyrics or playing Postal 2) it’s a parenting slip-up, not the fault of any media industry. Sure, there are blind spots in a parent’s control – there always have been. But this law wouldn’t have changed that. Kids determined to misbehave would still find ways, whether by having another adult buy a game for them, playing the game at a friend’s house, or something else. This proposed law would have done absolutely nothing but waste time and taxpayer’s money.
And this ruling favors Wal-Mart and corporations? Hardly. Under Yee’s law, it would be extremely difficult for an independent game developer (I.E., one not connected to a big publishing corporation) whose game had “mature” or “adult” content to publish their work, whether it’s artistic or not. By striking down the law, little guys retain their right to make video games the way the want, without fear of censorship.
Now, some people have criticized not the Court’s decision, but rather the excessive celebration of the decision. And they may have a point. A lot of fellow game industry writers who I follow on Twitter have been spreading a message essentially saying, “This would be better if the game industry had more ‘mature’ products worth defending,” and they’re not really wrong. While there are a lot of games out there with “Mature” ESRB ratings that I think have at least some artistic merit (Bioshock, Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption…), the law also defends crude, childish “mature” content like in Duke Nukem Forever and Saints Row, which don’t always reflect well on our industry as a sophisticated medium.
That being said, I think the best news here relates to the future. With the Supreme Court essentially saying, “Games have the same protections and rights as art,” games can fully mature without the worry of being censored or ostracized simply because of their content. Now that “Silent Hill 2″ won’t be treated like a pornographic movie, developers can look into more ways to use mature themes and content in an interactive message that actually matters, instead of shying away because they want to sell more units.
At least, that’s my hope. Interactive storytelling has an enormous amount of potential, and I hope this decision is a good sign for things to come.