Your Day in Court

Warning. Inappropriate Materials Here

The black and white PARENTAL ADVISORY STICKER (as seen on the left) was a staple of my adolescence. It seemed that a great deal of the music my peers were interested in were Hester Prynne’d by that stark label. Very few (if any) parents gave the thing a second look. Very few (if any) music outlets would deny a sale based on the patron’s age. As a method of regulation, the label was a joke. As a signal of disobedient youth, it became a wild success. Lacking any serious enforcement or consequence, the warning instead became a kind of fashion statement, a signal that your latest purchase would have some profanity or lewd conduct layered somewhere between the chorus and backing vocals.

In contrast, my late teens were ruled by the Motion Picture Association of America’s film-rating system. By the time I was old enough to be interested in a flash of skin or an uncomfortably gross sequence, the MPAA had begun to actively enforce the age restrictions built in to their ratings. Nudity, excessive gore, particularly florid language? All required the accompaniment of an adult, 18 years or older. Without the kind adult companion, I was relegated to gems such as Space Jam or Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie.

While the highly-alluring “R” (Restricted) movie was certainly tempting, I never had the nerve to sneak in to movies which were out of my classification league. The possibility of public shaming -- or, worse, having my parents called in to hear how I juked the law -- became mortifying death sentences for my young ego. My own fear served to keep me in check.

Now that the issue of “appropriate age” faces gaming (again!), and that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, by proxy, is feeling a moment in the spotlight, I’m beginning to feel like I’m on a carousel ride.

Virtually every entertainment medium has, at one point or another, suffered the accusation of corrupting the minds and morals of our youth. Comics, through their seduction of the innocent, were purported to promote degenerate sexual values and homicidal urges. As a result, the industry adopted a self-regulating Comics Code Authority. In the intervening time between the adoption of the CCA and the present, the idea that a code should govern the content of our funnybooks became positively quaint. While advances in story, art and design have made the modern comic more graphic than anything that spawned the CCA, there’s an accepted value to the medium as an entertainment vehicle. Perhaps as important, the image of a comic fan has shifted from gangly eight year-old to pudgy Comic Book Guyish young adult.

Likewise, advances in resolution, design and imagery have made it possible for games to push convincingly graphic simulacra onto their audience. Night Trap and Mortal Kombat helped create this hysteria with their visual shock, despite the low-res nature of their age. Grand Theft Auto III brought the idea of unrestricted immorality to the table, shifting attention away from what children see. It has since become a question of whether these experiences color the way children may act. And while gaming has become a more mainstream pastime -- thanks in large part to casual upticks from the Wii and Farmville, and from the massive success of Rock Band and Guitar Hero -- the idea of gaming is still framed as an immature “kid” thing to do.

The arguments that the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing today boil down to some rather heady items. Can the state of California express a reasonable interest in regulating the sale and purchase of video games? If answered in the affirmative, this places games on an analogous scale to alcohol, pornography and tobacco (in regulatory terms). Such an answer would also strip video games from any reasonable claim to artistic or literary merit.

To put that in context, something like the exceedingly controversial novel Fanny Hill could, under the terms outlined above, be considered devoid of any artistic merit. Ditto for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was briefly contested in the U.S. thanks to its anti-slavery views. And A Clockwork Orange, as a film, could be considered little more than an early predecessor to Saw or Hostel.

When applied to literature, the implications behind Schwarzenegger v. EMA are chilling. When applied to digital media (re: video games), a kind of fugue clouds over what would otherwise be a significant act of censorship. For all the effort that goes into defending games as High Art, few would say that the experiences are completely lacking any sort of artistic merit. Katamari Damacy may not read like Poe, but the combination of art direction, music and user experience blends to create a significant statement. Likewise, Metal Gear Solid may not be the most accessible work ever put to silicon disc, but scenes of torture and graphic brutality don’t invalidate Hideo Kojima’s musings on nuclear proliferation, genetic engineering, and life in a new millennium.

Keep in mind that the definition of art here hangs on the assumption that shocking or graphic scenes can not promote any worthwhile discussion. By that same token, Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, which features the rape of a young woman, loses any value as a commentary on vengeance, justice, and faith. We must wonder how far some are willing to go to categorize something as destructive to the young mind. Heavy Rain a game praised for its narrative, features drug use, nudity, scenes of torture and death. Would others dismiss the whole because of its constituent parts?

Never before has the concept of artistic value in games been so essential.

Comments

All the briefs are available from this site. Here's the transcript of this morning's oral argument can be found here (PDF).

I wonder how much the courts are forced to consider the over-abundance of sh*tty parenting when making these kinds of decisions.

There's one angle that has me worried. Based on the extracts they posted at Kotaku, both the lawyers and SCOTUS were harping on violence in video games and how that is different than regulating other obscenities (sex being the main precedent), but then something hit me. Suppose the same restrictions outlined in California's law in terms of violence in video games can be applied towards sexual content or cursing; this might not go away.

Thanks for the links wordsmythe. Judging by the oral argument it doesn't look like this thing is going to pass. I'm impressed by how the justices are responding to Morazzini's arguments and asking smart questions. It seems like they've already made up their minds, I'm curious why this even got brought up again.

Dax wrote:

I wonder how much the courts are forced to consider the over-abundance of sh*tty parenting when making these kinds of decisions.

That came up in oral argument as part of the "reasonable interest" question.

Rat Boy wrote:

Suppose the same restrictions outlined in California's law in terms of violence in video games can be applied towards sexual content or cursing; this might not go away.

That's likely the reason it was brought forth: to serve as a reminder that protections of first amendment rights are in play regardless of the form of media they may be found in.

At least, one can hope that's the reason.

BlueBrain wrote:

Thanks for the links wordsmythe. Judging by the oral argument it doesn't look like this thing is going to pass. I'm impressed by how the justices are responding to Morazzini's arguments and asking smart questions. It seems like they've already made up their minds, I'm curious why this even got brought up again.

It's possible that the court let this case up because they wanted to finally put the issue to bed. It's certainly come up in a number of other states already.

Rat Boy wrote:

There's one angle that has me worried. Based on the extracts they posted at Kotaku, both the lawyers and SCOTUS were harping on violence in video games and how that is different than regulating other obscenities (sex being the main precedent), but then something hit me. Suppose the same restrictions outlined in California's law in terms of violence in video games can be applied towards sexual content or cursing; this might not go away.

The lawyers for CA are working on carving out room for their law (or fitting it within an already existing carve-out) based on notions that children are "different" (see pornography, alcohol and tobacco) and that not all speech is necessarily protected (basically that certain types of violent content are tantamount to obscenity).

What I don't like about the course of the arguments is that, because nobody's willing to give ground, nobody's pointing out that most of what is being used as examples should perhaps not have been rated M, but AO. As it is, nothing reaches all the way to AO unless it has real gambling or "strong sexual content," with the exception of the cancelled Thrill Kill.

There's also an issue I noted in the P&C thread, as to what violence the state of California considers objectionable. Justice Sotomayor asked the question if brutal violence against a "Vulcan" (she must play Klingon in Star Trek Online) is obscene under the law; as in anything non-human. Thus, based on thath interpretation of the law, Gears of War is perfectly acceptable for children since the Locusts aren't people. Who wrote this thing?

wordsmythe wrote:
BlueBrain wrote:

Thanks for the links wordsmythe. Judging by the oral argument it doesn't look like this thing is going to pass. I'm impressed by how the justices are responding to Morazzini's arguments and asking smart questions. It seems like they've already made up their minds, I'm curious why this even got brought up again.

It's possible that the court let this case up because they wanted to finally put the issue to bed. It's certainly come up in a number of other states already.

You may be right on that. Nina Totenberg on NPR this morning mentioned that the Supreme Court rarely takes up a case when all the appellate-level cases have been in agreement.

My take on the whole ordeal is simple and twofold:

1. The California law is pretty much garbage, the least of the reasons Rat Boy points out. Locust may be non-human, but I won't let my kids touch Gears until they're in High School. There are other games like that, but yea.

2. The industry at current does an absolutely outstanding job of self policing games and issuing exceptionally informative, accurate ratings for games. I'd say that when it comes to industries with similar ratings systems, the gaming industry is head and shoulders beyond everyone else. So with that said, let them continue to do so. Let those restrictions have legal force in the same manner that movie theaters do. After all, movie theaters card for R movies. I've even been carded at Walmart for R rated movies. People generally seem to be fine with how it works there, see what needs to be done to make it work for gaming and roll with it, I say.

AnimeJ wrote:

2. The industry at current does an absolutely outstanding job of self policing games and issuing exceptionally informative, accurate ratings for games. I'd say that when it comes to industries with similar ratings systems, the gaming industry is head and shoulders beyond everyone else. So with that said, let them continue to do so. Let those restrictions have legal force in the same manner that movie theaters do. After all, movie theaters card for R movies. I've even been carded at Walmart for R rated movies. People generally seem to be fine with how it works there, see what needs to be done to make it work for gaming and roll with it, I say.

But isn't that what this law is about?

I agree with your point here. So I'm a little confused as to the drama. Is it gamer hyperbole? Or is there something more insidious and dangerous in the California law proposal that I'm missing?

MrDeVil909 wrote:
AnimeJ wrote:

2. The industry at current does an absolutely outstanding job of self policing games and issuing exceptionally informative, accurate ratings for games. I'd say that when it comes to industries with similar ratings systems, the gaming industry is head and shoulders beyond everyone else. So with that said, let them continue to do so. Let those restrictions have legal force in the same manner that movie theaters do. After all, movie theaters card for R movies. I've even been carded at Walmart for R rated movies. People generally seem to be fine with how it works there, see what needs to be done to make it work for gaming and roll with it, I say.

But isn't that what this law is about?

I agree with your point here. So I'm a little confused as to the drama. Is it gamer hyperbole? Or is there something more insidious and dangerous in the California law proposal that I'm missing?

Carding for R rated movies is not required by law in America. It's something theaters and merchants do voluntarily--those ratings have no "legal force."

http://www.mpaa.org/ratings/ratings-...

I'm personally against any form of government control over what can and can't be portrayed, regardless of the art form. I don't even think pornography should be exempted from first amendment protections as it currently is, but I don't live in the US, nor was I even alive when that happened. This is purely the responsibility of the parents. And quite frankly, a pair of boobs is far less damaging than what you see in even a PG-13 action movie as far as I'm concerned.

wordsmythe wrote:

What I don't like about the course of the arguments is that, because nobody's willing to give ground, nobody's pointing out that most of what is being used as examples should perhaps not have been rated M, but AO. As it is, nothing reaches all the way to AO unless it has real gambling or "strong sexual content," with the exception of the cancelled Thrill Kill.

But the difference between M (17+) and AO (18+) is a single year in the buyer's life. The line is probably drawn at real gambling and strong sexual content because those are things that (generally speaking) have a legal requirement that the consumer be eighteen years old. You must be eighteen or older to gamble, and you must be eighteen or old to view pornography.

Slate's summary of the arguments is here.

Dax wrote:

I wonder how much the courts are forced to consider the over-abundance of sh*tty parenting when making these kinds of decisions.

Telling parents they're doing a bad job or not doing it at all seems to be political suicide. Unfortunately, most politicians seem only to care about getting and staying in power, not about making sensible decisions.

Seems like a good argument for one-term limits on all elected offices.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

What I don't like about the course of the arguments is that, because nobody's willing to give ground, nobody's pointing out that most of what is being used as examples should perhaps not have been rated M, but AO. As it is, nothing reaches all the way to AO unless it has real gambling or "strong sexual content," with the exception of the cancelled Thrill Kill.

But the difference between M (17+) and AO (18+) is a single year in the buyer's life. The line is probably drawn at real gambling and strong sexual content because those are things that (generally speaking) have a legal requirement that the consumer be eighteen years old. You must be eighteen or older to gamble, and you must be eighteen or old to view pornography.

And that's a discussion I'd much rather have than a fight at SCotUS. If there are types of violence that really should be restricted like nakedness and gambling, then the ESRB should look at that as a question of how they apply standards.

The fact of the matter is that violence in video games IS more important than violence in other media. I don't have a citation for this, but it's known that 30 years ago, it was notoriously difficult to get green recruits in the military to fire a weapon at a human. A lot of ammo in the early part of WWII was wasted because people simply couldn't bring themselves to the act of murder without a lot of desensitization.

Now, it's much easier. People have been trained to point weapons at people and pull the trigger.

Don't get me wrong. I love shooters. I don't want to see them disappear. But I DO think that we should give strong recommendations (like movies ratings) to parents to keep kids from doing this too much until they're old enough that they understand desensitization (at least in principle).

Sex? Well, I think that there's a LOT of schlock that degrades women. I'm not worried that my little boy will see a woman's nipple, but I AM worried that he will think of women as sex objects. The latter can be implied without ever showing the former, and vice versa.

Nathaniel wrote:

The fact of the matter is that violence in video games IS more important than violence in other media. I don't have a citation for this, but it's known that 30 years ago, it was notoriously difficult to get green recruits in the military to fire a weapon at a human. A lot of ammo in the early part of WWII was wasted because people simply couldn't bring themselves to the act of murder without a lot of desensitization.

Now, it's much easier. People have been trained to point weapons at people and pull the trigger.

This sounds familiar.

Scratched wrote:
Nathaniel wrote:

The fact of the matter is that violence in video games IS more important than violence in other media. I don't have a citation for this, but it's known that 30 years ago, it was notoriously difficult to get green recruits in the military to fire a weapon at a human. A lot of ammo in the early part of WWII was wasted because people simply couldn't bring themselves to the act of murder without a lot of desensitization.

Now, it's much easier. People have been trained to point weapons at people and pull the trigger.

This sounds familiar.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S.L.A._...

Personally, I don't see how this isn't a point *in favor* of video games in arguing against the American government. What good are all those Second Amendment rights if you can't pull the trigger when it comes time to put your Heller handgun into action?

Eezy_Bordone wrote:

Slate's summary of the arguments is here.

Despite all the points and levels jokes in the Slate summary, I actually found the transcript to be a lot more entertaining. Certainly Morazzini's parts anyway.

CheezePavilion wrote:
Scratched wrote:
Nathaniel wrote:

The fact of the matter is that violence in video games IS more important than violence in other media. I don't have a citation for this, but it's known that 30 years ago, it was notoriously difficult to get green recruits in the military to fire a weapon at a human. A lot of ammo in the early part of WWII was wasted because people simply couldn't bring themselves to the act of murder without a lot of desensitization.

Now, it's much easier. People have been trained to point weapons at people and pull the trigger.

This sounds familiar.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S.L.A._...

Personally, I don't see how this isn't a point *in favor* of video games in arguing against the American government. What good are all those Second Amendment rights if you can't pull the trigger when it comes time to put your Heller handgun into action?

California state government, not the American government.

MrDeVil909 wrote:

But isn't [giving the ESRB rating system the force of law] what this law is about?

I agree with your point here. So I'm a little confused as to the drama. Is it gamer hyperbole? Or is there something more insidious and dangerous in the California law proposal that I'm missing?

No, that's not what this is about. The California law in question doesn't recognize the ESRB rating system at all, it simply makes it a crime to sell or rent "violent" games to minors, without offering a useful definition of what counts as "violent" for the purposes of not getting fined. Even if you agree that video games are so harmful to the youth that they need to be legally restricted in a way that no other audiovisual content with the sole exception of hardcore pornography is, and even if you feel that the current self-enforced industry rating system isn't good enough, the California law in question is a particularly poorly-thought-out solution to the problem.

wordsmythe wrote:
CheezePavilion wrote:
Scratched wrote:
Nathaniel wrote:

The fact of the matter is that violence in video games IS more important than violence in other media. I don't have a citation for this, but it's known that 30 years ago, it was notoriously difficult to get green recruits in the military to fire a weapon at a human. A lot of ammo in the early part of WWII was wasted because people simply couldn't bring themselves to the act of murder without a lot of desensitization.

Now, it's much easier. People have been trained to point weapons at people and pull the trigger.

This sounds familiar.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S.L.A._...

Personally, I don't see how this isn't a point *in favor* of video games in arguing against the American government. What good are all those Second Amendment rights if you can't pull the trigger when it comes time to put your Heller handgun into action?

California state government, not the American government.

American Constitution, not the Californian...whatever they have I can never tell.

Besides, even in California, Arnie signed this. Does he want kids to grow up to girlie men?

CheezePavilion wrote:

Besides, even in California, Arnie signed this. Does he want kids to grow up to girlie men?

Man, your new avatar has changed you.

wordsmythe wrote:
CheezePavilion wrote:

Besides, even in California, Arnie signed this. Does he want kids to grow up to girlie men?

Man, your new avatar has changed you.

I'm just sayin' it confuses me when conservatives have a problem with violence. This is like liberals having a problem with the Care Bears.

I f*cking love Care Bears.

I saw Robocop, Lifeforce, Critters 2 and Scarface when I was about 10. All of those movies had nudity and/or violence.

I am now 33 and I feel fine.

burntham77 wrote:

I saw Robocop, Lifeforce, Critters 2 and Scarface when I was about 10. All of those movies had nudity and/or violence.

I am now 33 and I feel fine.

Crazy people never think they are crazy.

Nathaniel wrote:

The fact of the matter is that violence in video games IS more important than violence in other media.

That's an opinion, not a fact. As brought up in the SCOTUS transcripts, there is little scientific evidence to support either side, with few studies, and the studies that exist are conflicting. There's literally two, one showing it could have an effect, and one showing that video games have no more effect than any other media (books, TV, movies, music, etc). Lacking any scientific consensus, the SCOTUS has discussed using the "common sense check", but it's unlikely they will agree to draw strong conclusions against video games with the common sense check (it's far more likely to swing it the opposite direction).