Pop quiz, hotshot: Would you, as a parent, let your young child watch Saw or Hostel, read American Psycho or listen to Straight Outta Compton? If you said no, congratulations: You're part of the vast majority of Americans who believe that not all content is appropriate for all ages. Second question: Do you think state or federal governments in the U.S. have the legal right to prevent children from accessing this content? The correct answer is also no: The Motion Picture Association of America and, to a lesser extent, the Recording Industry Association of America issue ratings for movies and music on a voluntary basis, but there is absolutely no legislation that says a twelve-year-old can't buy a ticket and catch a matinee showing of Antichrist.
Last question, then: How do you feel about the fact that some politicians are trying to impose just that sort of legislation on videogames?
Proper answers can be found anywhere along the scale between confusion and outrage over the continuing drive of governments to hold videogames, as a medium, separate and distinct from all other forms of expression despite repeated Constitutional smackdowns. It's been 30-some years since Space Invaders and we're still waiting for Ragnarok, yet you'd think from the way some people carry on that the end-times are upon us and the only salvation is to turn videogame violence into a new form of pornography.
Twelve U.S. states have enacted legislation regulating the sale of videogames over the past decade; in each and every case - every one of them - the law in question was overturned on appeal for being in violation of the First Amendment. It's a hell of a win streak. It also, by the end of this year or early into the next, may not mean very much.
In April, the Supreme Court of the United States announced that it would review a 2005 California law that would legally restrict the sale of violent videogames to minors. Like every other such law, it had been overturned by a federal court almost as soon as it was enacted, leaving the state to pay more than a quarter-million dollars in legal fees to the Entertainment Software Association; but California, led by none other than that paragon of family-friendly entertainment, Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, decided to fight. The matter was appealed all the way to the Supreme, and its decision to hear the case sometime in late 2010 or early 2011 means the real game is now afoot.
ECA President Hal Halpin said last week that this is "perhaps the single most important challenge [the videogame industry] has ever faced in the U.S.," and that's no overstatement. A Supreme Court ruling could enshrine once and for all the First Amendment rights of videogames, finally giving them equal footing in the eyes of the law with other forms of creative expression. Or it could rule that games, as an interactive medium, are an exception to the rule and that such protections do not apply. In other words, that individual states can (and most certainly will) regulate their sale and distribution.