Confirming that video games are protected by First Amendment free speech rights, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a California law restricting the rental or sale of violent games to minors is unconstitutional.
Voting 7-2 to strike down the law, justices ruled that the government has no authority to “restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.” Their decision negates the 2005 state law, which prohibited those under age 18 from buying or renting violent video games, including those involving the killing, maiming or dismemberment of humans, and its associated $1000/game fine for violating retailers. Upholding a Ninth Circuit court of appeals ruling, the decision extends the same legal protections to video games as those enjoyed by books, movies, TV shows, plays and other creative works.
No stranger to criticism from parents and politicians, video games have long been targets for possible government oversight, dating back to the early ‘90s and investigations into titles like Mortal Kombat or Night Trap. Publishers and retailers throughout the industry currently utilize a voluntary ratings system governed by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, similar to the MPAA rating system used for films.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of game players is 37, and only 18% of the gaming audience is under age 18, however. Nine of ten parents are also present when games are purchased or rented, and 98% are confident in the accuracy of these ratings. But critics allege that the ruling will allow more violent video games to find their way into children’s hands.
Proponents say that it’s simply an immature art form that’s enjoying the same growing pains with cultural acceptance as rock and roll, playwriting and comic books. Either way, with free speech protections now unequivocally extended to the realm of interactive entertainment, expect no shortage in the ever-growing queue of crazy new ideas from software designers.