In 2005, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California signed into law a bill that would make selling an M-rated video game to a minor illegal and subject the seller to a $1,000 fine. The bill, penned by Senator Leland Yee (D-California), was deemed unconstitutional by both a minor court and a court of appeals under the rights of the First Amendment and was overturned in a victory for the ESA and the Electronic Merchants Association.
However, now it appears that Governor Schwarzenegger is taking the case up to the highest court in the nation, the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has agreed to take the case, named Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of California, v. Entertainment Merchants Association, and it will be the first time a case on the illegalization of the sale of mature video games will be seen by the court.
While this is a state law that would only affect citizens of the State of California, it does set a very interesting precedent for gamers nationwide. The illegalization of mature video games for sale to minors would not only serve to undermine the ESRB, the ratings board that has put specific ratings on video games since 1994, but would also lead to governmental control on the sale of video games, the only entertainment media currently in existence to have such a law levied upon it.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the industry and the mature content featured in video games, particularly in recent times. Games ranging from Grand Theft Auto to Mass Effect have seen firestorms of media attention due to violent and sometimes sexual content, and often caught the disparaging eyes of politicians as a result. However, the video-game industry has always been a self-sustaining one, governing itself through its rating system and doing what it can to educate parents as to the content of its games. Additionally, it has always been at the jurisdiction of the merchant whether or not to sell M-rated games to minors, and as a former employee of a game store, I’ve been in the situation more than once of refusing sale of an M-rated game to someone who was not of age and did not have parental consent.
The motion picture industry is an example of one that does not have to adhere to any laws, state or federal, when it comes to selling to minors. The MPAA has its own ratings system that has been in effect for decades, and movie theaters still continue to turn minors away from R-rated pictures without any governmental intervention or fines for admitting them. Additionally, literature with adult themes is still readily available at bookstores and libraries for readers regardless of age. Shouldn’t the video-game industry be held to the same standards?
For decades now, videogames have stepped out of the arcades and become an enterprise that transcends age groups. What was once believed to be simply for children has become a full-fledged entertainment form encompassing people from all age groups and walks of life. There are games on the market which are marketed to children, and there are games that are most definitely not. No one is saying that children should be allowed to walk into a store and spend their lemonade stand money on a copy of Grand Theft Auto IV, but that should ultimately be a decision for that child’s parents and the seller, not something that should be mandated by law.
Should the Supreme Court side with Governor Schwarzenegger and put the law back into effect, the results will eventually be felt nationwide. Other states will jump on the bandwagon, criminalizing the sale of M-rated games to minors, and should that be allowed, then video games will no longer be protected under the First Amendment’s granting of freedom of speech. The next step could be no games will be allowed to feature Mature content whatsoever, stifling the creativity of countless game developers and reverting the industry back to a state when it was merely “toys for children.”
Ultimately, M-Rated games should be played by those who are properly permitted to play them, namely those who are old enough to decide for themselves or those who might be young, but have permission from their parents to do so. It works for the motion picture industry and other forms of entertainment, and should be allowed to work in the video-game business. It’s a very slippery slope, and should the Supreme Court allow this law to pass into effect, the ramifications felt in the video-gaming community will spread far and wide.