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.