My Thoughts on the VG Supreme Court Case

So today marks the start of  The State of California vs. The Entertainment Merchants Association and Entertainment Software Association case at Supreme Court. Essentially it looks to see if the sale of violent video games to minors should be regulated.

The main part of this law is about violent video games and describes them as such:

(A) Comes within all of the following descriptions:
(i) A reasonable person, considering the game as a whole, would
find appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors.
(ii) It is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the
community as to what is suitable for minors.
(iii) It causes the game, as a whole, to lack serious literary,
artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.
(B) Enables the player to virtually inflict serious injury upon
images of human beings or characters with substantially human
characteristics in a manner which is especially heinous, cruel, or
depraved in that it involves torture or serious physical abuse to the
victim.

At the moment the US has the ESRB. A self-regulated ratings board that gives out ratings from E for Everyone to M for Mature. At the moment these ratings are just a guideline for publishers and stores to adopt, though for the most part they have. Should a retailer ignore the ESRB ratings there is currently no legal ramifications in place.

However should the current law being debated in Supreme Court pass it will make it illegal (with a $2000 fine) to sell violent video games to minors. From what I’ve been reading this means stores will no longer take the risk of stocking M-rated games, which in turn means developers will no longer make M-rated games, the games industry will go into collapse and

But I think this is a terrible over reaction and is maybe a bit too revealing of the subconscious thoughts of gamers and game journalists on the current state of the industry as a whole.

Clearly if the ESRB is a perfect, or near perfect system (and they claim is the best in the entertainment sector) then the games will be appropriately rated.

For example here’s some ratings of a few controversial and/or violent games:

Grand Theft Auto IV – M

Modern Warfare 2 – M

God of War 3 – M

Postal 2 – M

All M’s, and I’d say most would agree appropriately so. So as it stands ESRB have already gone and labelled these games as ‘not for kids’. Which then shifts to the stores. Now if these guys aren’t going to stock M-rated games in case they accidentally sell them to kids and get a fine, then that isn’t a problem with the games industry but their staff training. Do Wal-mart refuse to stock alcohol incase they accidentally sell it to a minor? No of course they don’t. So why any different with video games. What makes people think that stores will suddenly drop the M-Rated COD series because of this law? COD is one of the best selling entertainment franchises out their. It has proven to be a consistent pre-christmas hit year on year and I think any store would be insane to refuse to stock it due to its M-rating. This extends to all other M-rated titles. If stores have been wilfully ignoring the ESRB ratings then if this law gets pushed through then it should be a shock to the system and make them actually pay attention to the ratings.

As an Englishmen I have lived all my life under the ‘oppressive’ rule of the Video Recordings Act 1984. Which in a nutshell enforces the BBFC(and PEGI) ratings on films and, with an amendment, video games. This means you sell an 18-rated video game to someone under 18, then you, the employee who sold the game, get a big nasty fine (around £3000 I believe). Bit of background on the law, as I feel it’s relevant to bring it up. Unlike the current law trying to be passed in the US, the VRA was brought about due to ‘Video Nasties’ (yes people used to hate on the film industry, games just weren’t as good then). Which apart from having a different origin, also means it has a wider scope than the current law trying to be passed.

Since the VRA was bought in R* has been created and knocked out the GTA series and Manhunt within these very shores. The GTA games have consistently given an 18 rating, and they have been out on store shelves for sale and are currently some of the best selling titles in gaming. Surely this flies in the face of all the doom-n-gloom folks are spewing out? Despite having legally enforced ratings on games (and film), we still manage to knock out one of the most controversial series of all time, and make it a huge commercial success.

Results from a Secret Shopper conducted with minors attempting to buy Mature rated games

Also while some may declare that this will squash creativity in the games industry I actually feel that this law would be great for the wide social adoption of the medium. People are saying that it should be upto the parents on what games their child plays, and that’s exactly what this law allows, it empowers the parent to be able to control what games their child is exposed to. At the moment with no legal enforcement in place a child can waltz into and store with their birthday money and pick up a copy of Black Ops.

That means should the system work, then there is only one point of weakness in the chain as long as:

  • The Studios create games containing violent material
  • The ESRB appropriately rates this as Mature
  • The retailer respects the ESRB and declines sales to minor

It leaves the parent to buy the game for the child. There is no wiggle room for folks like Jack Thompson to come in and blame games for all the evils in the world, as the only people who should be playing these M-rated violent games are either fully grown and reasoning adults, or the children of parents who have given their kids the game. Which blaming the parents is rarely a stance you want to take.

This should be that it’ll be the complete opposite of what the doomsayers declare. With minimized criticism due to mature titles (both from simple violence or exploring more adult topics) being kept in the realm of adults only, then they can spread their wings and explore deeper topics instead of trying to minimize any damage should their games get into minors hands.

So while I am neither for or against this law, I do believe that it is not the death knell for the industry as some are making it out to be.

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