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Assassin’s Creed 2 could be off limits to 17 year olds

Should it be illegal for retailers to rent or sell violent video games to minors? That could soon be the case in California, where an overturned 2005 law is being reviewed by the Supreme Court. Attorney General, Jerry Brown, recently submitted a preliminary written argument to pass a law banning the sale of violent video games to anyone under 18.

That doesn’t sound so bad does it? Little Timmy shouldn’t be playing excessively violent games and heaven forbid his parents should have to actually pay attention to what their children are playing. The motivation behind the law is understandable, but the execution has more wrinkles than Jabba the Hutt after liposuction.

The most obvious problem is that there’s no clear definition of which games the law will apply to and which ones it won’t. How do we know the next Smash Bros. game won’t be withheld from 17 year olds due to excessive Kirby on Pikachu violence?

Even if they do manage to nail down perfect selection criteria, video games evolve much quicker than laws can be updated to reflect those changes. For example, in California it’s still illegal to eat an orange in your bath tub. Brilliant.

While the ESRB is far from perfect, they’ve been doing a generally respectable job of educating parents about which games are suitable for kids. The law would make more sense if it piggybacked on the ESRB system, but even if it did, it would still have some disconcerting consequences.

Passing the law would essentially place video games in a separate category from movies, books and other media, when it comes to free speech. That sets a dangerous prescient and could lay the groundwork for additional video game censorship laws that we can’t envision right now.

Game companies aren’t likely to be ecstatic about the potential law either. If it passed and other states followed suit, it could cause headaches for game developers who would need to submit different versions of their games to different states. It’s feasible that some smaller companies might decide to save the effort and not release certain games in certain states.

There are games that kids shouldn’t be playing and the law has a noble intent to address that issue. Unfortunately this law needs some serious work before it’s ready for use. At this stage the Supreme Court has only agreed to review the previous decision to overturn the law, so there’s no guarantee the decision will be overturned.

That being said, the Supreme Court has never heard a case dealing with violent video games so it’s difficult to predict how this will all turn out. For those of you that disagree with the proposed law, the ECA has an online petition that they plan to submit as part of the argument against the law (American gamers only).

All of this legal wrangling may be unpleasant business, but at least it’s nice to see a video game law controversy where Jack Thompson isn’t involved. That’s because he’s been disbarred. Sorry, that’s not really related, I just love linking to it.

  1. I’m a bit confused, I thought that was something that was already enforced in California. When I bought Bioshock, it was policy for the retailer to ask me how old I was before I could purchase the game. I was a bit thrown off by it, but he then explained to me why he had to ask my age, which happens to be about MA titles and minors.

    • The ESRB system is voluntary. Every major retailler uses it, but it’s not written into law. It’s very much like the MPAA system for movies. Creating a law for this would be similar to the government creating its own set of regulations for movies.

  2. Passing the law would essentially place video games in a separate category from movies, books and other media, when it comes to free speech.

    This isn’t technically the case as I understand it. There’s already restrictions on theaters about what they can show, with R-rated films requiring ID to be shown. There’s also some fairly stringent restrictions on adult entertainment, depending on the legal jurisdiction. It hasn’t resulted in censorship as far as I can tell because it’s simply limiting access, not limiting content. Still, the concern that such an event MIGHT happen is believable, and checking that any legal agreement made is clear and easily interpreted is critical.

    As far as it being illegal to eat an orange in the bathtub, it could be worse. It could be Maine and its law making it illegal to step out of a plane in flight. Go figure.

  3. Honestly, at this point I would be more apt to lay the burden of change on parents rather than lawmakers. We have a rating system, and we have stores that already check identification as a matter of their company policy, so why should we extend this any further?

    Are these parents not responsible for what comes into their homes? Do they not pay a single iota of attention to what their kids are doing, so concerned as they are? Seriously, I think the folks that truly care about this sort of thing have it under control, and those that don’t either need to re-examine their values or find a way to adapt. We really don’t need more lawmakers playing the role of parents.

    /mini-rant, I guess.

  4. R Rated movies SHOULD equal violent games.

  5. This just once again makes me wonder why retailers will carry M rated games for 17+ but a game that receives an AO (18+) never see the light of day. I guess a lot of gamers must be 17 year olds…

  6. Leland Yee’s transparently cynical argument as to why this law is “balanced” (his word, not mine) is that video games are interactive. So? Nonviolent video games are interactive, too. How exactly does Mr. Yee judge standards of interactivity among different levels of violence and different types of controls (button or motion based), especially since it’s painfully obvious he’s never done more than watch YouTube footage of Grand Theft Auto? Interactivity doesn’t automatically dictate that video games be held to a different standard as a medium, especially since pushing buttons on a controller does not teach you how to operate an AK-47.

    This law surfaced during the San Andreas hot coffee incident and Yee used it because he saw an easy ticket to getting ahead in a political career. Now that video game bashing has gone out of style, Mr. Yee seems intent on seeing this legislation through until it’s defeated so he doesn’t look even more hypocritical by dropping it and saving California taxpayers money when their state is in a financial crisis.

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