Although there is no question that some of the computer or video games currently available for sale in the United States depict horrific acts of violence, California’s proposed ban on the sale of “deviant or morbid” games to minors threatens to set a dangerous precedent. The five-year-old statute—which has been ruled unconstitutional by multiple courts and is now being debated by the United States Supreme Court—is not only bad policy, but also threatens the First Amendment rights of video-game publishers and consumers alike.
First and foremost, the California law constitutes bad policy. It imposes an impossibly heavy burden on the state government to police every aspect of the video-game industry and also ignores the numerous industry safeguards that are already in place to prevent minors from purchasing these games in the first place. Virtually every game published in or imported into the United States must pass under the scrutiny of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, a private group supported by all of the major video game publishers. The ESRB rates video games on a similar scale to the Motion Picture Association of America’s famous letter-coding system for movies.
Of the thousands of games released every year, only a small percentage earn a “Mature” or Adults Only rating. Mature video games are considered restricted products, similar to R-rated films; virtually every major retailer will ask for photo identification before selling them. Similarly, Adults Only video games are considered the equivalent of hardcore pornography, available only to adults over the age of 18 in specialty outlets. The video-game industry has worked for years with retailers to enforce these policies; just last year, the Federal Trade Commission published a report that acknowledged that these efforts have been extremely successful, calling the ESRB the “gold standard” for industry self-regulation.
Moreover, California’s law imposes an unnecessary burden on the state government at a time when Sacramento is already cutting essential services like public education. Should the law be upheld, every video game released in California will require a costly classification procedure, one that ignores the considerable expertise of the ESRB. Moreover, the standards used to judge a video game as “deviant” or “morbid” have not been made public. Without an objective standard, the California law will create a chilling effect on a rapidly growing sector of the entertainment industry. Given the current economic climate, this is hardly what California—home to Silicon Valley and dozens of tech companies—can afford.
Finally, the California law is just the latest in a very long tradition of governments experiencing a moral panic over harmless popular entertainment, including dime novels, comic books, films, and popular music. For decades, the Supreme Court has ruled, with very minor exceptions, that these laws are unconstitutional, infringing on the First Amendment rights of both the publisher and the consumer. And the California case is hardly the first to address this issue; nine other states have attempted to block the sale of violent video games, and all nine of their efforts have been ruled unconstitutional.
As such, no matter how objectionable some video games may seem, they are protected speech under the Bill of Rights. Given that the video game industry has taken extensive steps to prevent minors from acquiring these games, the California law is nothing more than a ludicrous example of government overstepping its bounds. The only solution that can effectively stop minors from acquiring these video games is one that is as old as entertainment itself: good parenting.
Eugene Kim ’10-’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House.