A lot of video gamers and gaming-oriented websites are breathing a sigh of relief after Monday’s 7-2 Supreme Court ruling overturned California’s ban on the sale of violent video games to minors.
Before I get into what the ruling’s effect will be, and why childless adult gamers such as myself were watching with such interest, let’s sum up the ruling itself. The court’s decision overturns a law passed by the Legislature in 2005 that would have imposed fines and potentially jail time on retailers who sold certain violent video games to minors. The law, which was never enforced because it’s been winding its way through the legal system for the past six years, would have regulated the sale of violent games the same way the government regulates things like pornography, cigarettes and alcohol. The gaming industry and free-speech advocates were quick to point out that other entertainment products like movies and books aren’t subject to the same types of restrictions. (Though most movie theaters will not sell tickets to R-rated movies to minors, it’s entirely voluntary. A theater that lets a 14-year-old kid buy a ticket to see “The Hangover 2” doesn’t risk a fine or jail time.)
The reason I and other gamers were watching Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association (formerly Schwarzenegger vs. EMA) with interest is because we feared the potential effect of a pro-California ruling on the content of the games we play. The industry and retailers have warned that if a store faces fines every time a stray employee violates company policy and sells a restricted game to minors, many retailers might opt not to sell such titles. Denied a place on the retail shelf for violent games targeted at adults, game publishers might simply choose to stop making such titles. The idea that video games that I play might be toned down, “nerfed” or otherwise altered, simply because parents don’t effectively police what video games their children play, is troubling.
That said, it was always unclear how much of a danger of censorship actually existed. With potentially millions of dollars in sales at stake, the game industry certainly had a motive to play up the potential chilling effects of such a law. But at the very least, it was a legal precedent worth paying attention to.
The law — written by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, back when he was an assemblyman — is certainly well-intentioned. As both a video gamer and an adult with young gamers in my extended family, I readily agree that too many children play violent games that they’re frankly not old enough to play. Hop online for a game of “Call of Duty: Black Ops” and it often seems like high school kids make up anywhere between a fifth and half the population playing. But that said, nearly every kid I know who owns a “Call of Duty” or “Grand Theft Auto” has the game because his or her parents purchased it.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a GameStop or Best Buy (the two chains at which the bulk of my brick-and-mortar retail purchases are made) and seen an underage kid successfully purchase an M-rated game. I’ve seen multiple instances in which a loitering kid, despite repeated attempts, was told he’d need to come back with a parent if he wanted to play “Call of Duty,” “GTA” or “Halo.” Far more often, though, I’ve seen obviously ignorant parents, children in tow, ask a kid, “Is this the game you want?” before forking over the money to buy an obviously inappropriate game. I’ve even seen retailers who try to warn parents about potentially objectionable content essentially be told to shut up and not to tell customers how to raise their children.
Perhaps because of California’s law and other, since-overturned legislation like it, the game industry has worked hard over the past decade to make M-rated games more difficult to purchase for minors. And that effort has borne fruit. A Federal Trade Commission study earlier this year found that video game retailers far outperformed sellers of movie tickets, music and DVDs when it came to preventing unaccompanied minors from buying content rated for adults. In the study, about 13 percent of undercover “secret shoppers” aged 13 to 16 were able to buy M-rated video games without a parent present. (In 2000, the first year the study was conducted, this figure was an appalling 96 percent. In 2006, the year after Yee’s law passed, the figure was 42 percent.)
The 13 percent figure is still too high, but it shows that the industry has made incredible strides policing itself. For all the scorn being heaped on them, Yee and other lawmakers also deserve some credit. It’s entirely possible the figure wouldn’t have fallen so dramatically if the game industry weren’t constantly fending off legal challenges over the access underage kids have to violent entertainment.
I also think the game industry has a ways to go when it comes to better educating parents about potentially objectionable content in M-rated games. Any gamer will tell you that there’s a huge difference in objectionable content between the likes of “Halo: Reach” and “Call of Duty: Black Ops.” In the former, there’s little blood and characters rarely use language stronger than “damn.” The latter contains a “harsh interrogation” in which an interrogator places glass inside a subject’s mouth, then punches him. You can learn all this information over at ESRB.org, but I’d really like to see cards with the same information on display at stores that sell these games. An informed parent is an empowered parent.
As a gamer and a California taxpayer, I’m a little dismayed my state has apparently spent more than $1 million fighting this protracted legal battle. Even though Yee has said he’s exploring the language used in Monday’s decision in an attempt to pass another law restricting violent game sales, it would be refreshing to see some acknowledgement and dialogue about how far the industry has come over the past decade, and about what government, parents groups and retailers might be able to do to together reduce that 13 percent figure even further. Perhaps the money that would be spent defending another similarly intentioned law could be put to better use to accomplish the same end result.
After all, any video gamer knows it’s easier to achieve objectives when working with others.