By Derek Sommer
Violent video games went on trial in the U.S. Supreme Court last month with Schwarzenegger vs. Entertainment Merchants Association. The case questions the constitutionality of a 2005 California law banning the sale of certain “deviant violent video games” to minors.
Violent video games have often aroused the ire of politicians. One example is Rockstar Games’ Manhunt series, in which the player is an assassin with a wide array of common objects, including a clothing iron and a plastic bag, in gory cinematic scenes.
While some argued that the unsightly sadism in Manhunt was exploring the disturbing nature of extreme violence, others felt it indulged dark tendencies toward violence in players.
The Supreme Court’s decision in this current case could have an important impact on legislation regarding violent video games in other states.
One of the main issues in the case is the difficulty of drawing the line between games that are and are not acceptable. Sexual obscenity, which draws many parallels with violence in this case, has had its share of legislative and judicial controversies.
Violence, meanwhile, does not have a clear definition for proper regulation. The California law defines violence that is unacceptable for minors as against humanoid forms, catering to sadistic tendencies and lacking artistic merit. These parameters, however, did not satisfy the Supreme Court.
“What’s a deviant violent video game? As opposed to what? A normal violent video game?” Justice Antonin Scalia said, addressing California deputy attorney general Zackery Morazzini at a hearing on Nov. 2. “The Grimm’s fairy tales are quite grim. Are you going to ban them, as well?”
Another issue of the case was the California law’s suggestion that video games should receive the special treatment as a form of media. The video game, movie and television industries all have their own internal systems of regulation, yet video games are singled out by the 2005 law for criminal penalties when sold to children. This argument is based on the idea that violent video games provide children with interactive carnage: the children are not watching their hero in battle but rather exacting pain and death on humanoid figures in the game.
“I would be extremely loathe to see video games treated like cigarettes or alcohol,” said Fort Worth senior Daniel Blauser. “Video games are a much more interactive and immersive form of media [than movies or books]. Gamers like to make this argument themselves, but it backfires on them when you begin to hold video games to a special standard.”
Another issue was whether the California legislation is supplanting the role of parents to a degree.
“I think that it’s up to a child’s parent to decide what is appropriate or not for their children,” said San Antonio senior Kaitlin Speer. “Parents, as the primary guardians of a child, would and should be around when their children are playing video games, so it’s not like parents are unaware as it is that their children are playing these violent video games.”
Supreme Justice Stephen Breyer argued differently.
“[Parents] need additional help [controlling what their kids play] because many parents are not home when their children come home from school,” Breyer said to Paul Smith, the attorney representing the video game industry. In his response, Blauser discussed the government’s involvement in parenting in a broader context.
“Within the public sphere, the government does very much augment and suggest [what parents should expose their kids to],” Blauser said on the issue. “If the ESRB [or Entertainment Software Rating Board] and the gaming industry’s own regulatory system is currently not adequate I could see [the government] stepping in. … I theoretically agree that the government can, and, under certain circumstances, probably should, have a hand in regulating the video game industry. However, given the current state of our political discourse, I am very worried about them actually being able to do it effectively without pandering to populism.”
Plano senior Harry Shen said video games as an unregulated media are valuable warning signs about our society that should not be suppressed.
“Violence in video games does not cause violence in the youth,” Shen said. “Improper guidance by parents is the root cause of violence manifesting itself in our culture. What we choose to do in a game, fantasy though it may be, is ultimately a reflection of the moral and ethical foundations that we are made of. Because of this, I think we as a people need to evaluate if our foundations and the basis of our morality need changing rather than changing the art forms we express ourselves with.”