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Game Buzz | The California Ruling: Victory For Free Speech Or A Global Double Standard?

Jonathan Lester
Age restrictions, California, ESA, lawsuit

Game Buzz | The California Ruling: Victory For Free Speech Or A Global Double Standard?

Us gamers tend to aggressively rail against any attempts to censor or curtail our medium. We smacked down Jack Thompson. We annhilated Roger Ebert. And wouldn't you know it, Arnold Schwarzenegger soon provided us with a field day when he presented a controversial bill that would "ban violent games" in California.

This bill was an important precedent disguised as a small piece of state legislation, so gamers got hot under the collar on a global scale. We shrieked and wailed. Chests were beaten and garments were rent in twain. But unlike our futile teeth-gnashings, the Entertainment Software Association was ready to take action. They're one of the few interest groups who are always willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved - and after a brutal legal campaign, the bill was thrown out by the Supreme Court earlier this week.

Game Buzz | The California Ruling: Victory For Free Speech Or A Global Double Standard?

Before we go any further, I need to stress that we absolutely agree with the court's ruling. Schwarzenegger's bill was made for all the wrong reasons; citing ridiculous links between videogames and violence as proof for why mature games shouldn't be sold to kids. It was literally built on a tissue of lies, and thus the ESA were absolutely right to burn it. What's more, the US Constitution (which us Brits don't have, annoyingly) would have been irreparably damaged by the move. After all, American film classications (doled out by the MPAA) aren't actually legally enforced - so why should one entertainment medium be treated differently from the others?

What I don't agree with, however, is how the ESA and even us gamers are treating the basic concept of regulating violent videogame sales to young people. Here's the thing: this bill wasn't technically trying to ban anything. It wasn't demanding that copies of Bulletstorm and Black Ops should be thrown onto massive bonfires while bible-bashing fanatics dance and chant in the background. The legislation was a nasty first step in a right wing agenda, but at its core, the only suggestion was that California should put age ratings on gratuitously violent games and regulate their sale to youngsters.

So, dear reader, my question is simple: would that really be so bad? And, more to the point, aren't Californian citizens aware that other countries legally enforce their age ratings?

Game Buzz | The California Ruling: Victory For Free Speech Or A Global Double Standard?

It's a moot question here in the UK, because we've technically already passed the bill. Cinemas and actually face a fine if they allow minors to purchase or rent media that's been classified by the BBFC. Sales staff can actually be fined or sent to prison as per the Licensing Laws if they knowingly supply young people with restricted videogames. And, as far as I'm aware, many American states have the same ordnance in place for movies. This creates a bit of a double standard - both on a global scale and in terms of simple common sense. If 17-year olds can't rent or buy 18-rated films, why exactly should they be allowed to rent or buy 18-rated games in California? It doesn't make any sense to me. There should be a single rule for all forms of entertainment - that holds true regardless of whether it's a movie, videogame or even a music video.

This is a tremendous victory for the entertainment software industry and the right of free expression. - The E.S.A.

Allow me to play devil's advocate for a second. The idea that games should be legally protected against being banned for violent content is absolutely just - and something we should fight tooth and nail to preserve - but letting youngsters purchase violent games is a very different thing from protecting the "right of free expression," surely? The Australian government's ban on violent games is a free speech issue, but by the Californian Supreme Court's logic, isn't enforcing any film and media classifications techincally breaches of this universal right? Isn't restricting a movie to 18+ audiences in fact restricting the director's right to free expression? Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument simply doesn't hold water.

"But you dickhead Jonathan," I hear you indignantly exclaim, "legally restricting videogame sales to young people would cause publishers to lose a lot of money and stop producing awesome violent games." I've lost count of the sheer number of times that I've heard this argument - and every time, I've asked a question in return. Since when did we start caring about Activision and EA's bottom line? More to the point, this move wouldn't hurt them as badly as you might think. The big publishers will still be free to make and release their delicious violent wares, and since the ESA claims that the average age of gamers is 37, it seems hypocritical to suggest that cutting out the 12-17 year old demographic would make an enormous difference. Plus, we all know that violence alone isn't enough to make a good game, and a greater emphasis on clever mechanics and high quality couldn't be a bad thing.

But, ultimately, it's not up to governments to tell us what we can or can't consume. Publishers and distributors need to take the reins and better educate parents about their wares - so what does have to change is the way that videogames are marketed. Adverts for violent films aren't allowed to pitch towards minors and have to adhere to strict watersheds. Alchohol companies aren't allowed to glamourise their products and have to warn the viewers to use "moderation." Cigarette companies (which are very different, yes, but still provide a product that's legally not classified for consumption by young people) can't advertise at all in the UK - and car manufacturers are legally bound to ensure that speed and thrills aren't glorified in any way.

And yet, EA is free to do this.

Publishers need to do their part towards making sure that our medium can't be blamed for "corrupting the young" and all that anti-videogame bullsh*t you hear many pundits roll out every few weeks. Organisations such as the E.S.A. need to play a greater role, not just in defending our medium, but in actually policing it to ensure that our own major players aren't making the issue any more controversial than it already is. It's easy to criticise the Daily Fail and other sensationalist media outlets for perpetuating negative gaming stereotypes, but sometimes, we make their job much easier than it needs to be.

To conclude, we haven't heard the last of this issue. Someone else will eventually come along and suggest that selling violent games to minors should be illegal in the US. But when they do, Californians - and us gamers around the globe - need to review the proposal on its own merits, not just rail against it as a knee-jerk reaction. And, if you are from Cali, do please spare a thought for us Brits who've been perfectly fine with this system for years.

We want to hear from you, gamers. Want to agree with our statements, open up the debate or lay waste to our arguments? Have your say in the comments!

Add a comment 1 comment
Rubisco  Jul. 3, 2011 at 07:30

I don't think the Americans will thank you for calling their federalism a double standard


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