Sunday, November 7, 2010

Supreme Court unsure if virtual violence can be measured

The Supreme Court is weighing the constitutionality of a California law criminalizing the sale of ultra-violent video games to children

Zackery Morazzini, deputy attorney general of California, is arguing that a ratings board can determine what is "patently offensive violence" and impose a fine on retailers who sell games featuring it to the 17-and-under crowd.

The opposition, which I rest on, believes that this will having a chilling effect and impact the content of video games released to adults. As the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated showed, ratings boards have a side effect. The rated material is often shaped to fit into the parameters of the rating categories, so violent or sexual content on the margin is often cut.

Manhunt 2 is a perfect example of this phenomena. The game was initially given an "Adults Only" rating, which would have kept it off the shelves of most stores, so most of the violence was obscured like a 1990's unpaid premium channel. This meant people adults like me could never purchase a copy of the uncensored version of the game.

Now while video game ratings already exist and have some impact on what consumers can buy, this forced enforcement of the ratings "guide" would increase the side effect and consumers like me would have to live in a sanitized world. It would be enough to push the current world of prior restraint into actual censorship.

The Supreme Court is treating this as a First Amendment issue, and a highlight of some of the proceedings shows the justices are concerned the ratings will be too vague and arbitrary:

Justice Antonin Scalia: What's a deviant — a deviant, violent video game? As opposed to what? A normal violent video game?

Morazzini: Yes, Your Honor. Deviant would be departing from established norms.

Scalia: There are established norms of violence?

The article is pretty interesting. I was happy to see President Obama's nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan had some pretty clever questions and comments. Sotamayor got Morazzini to reveal a simple loophole: if video game publishers simply declare that the victim of violence is an android or space alien than it escapes the law.

Kagan brought up how the law would treat Mortal Kombat:

" an iconic game, which I am sure half of the clerks who work for us spent considerable amounts of time in their adolescence playing."

It reminds me of being a young reporter at municipal meetings and exchanging glances with the other 20-somethings when a crusty politician would declare something unfounded about youth culture. Kagan hit that point home when she said the law clerks right there in the judicial branch were exposed to this form of entertainment and didn't become sociopaths.

This will be an interesting case to see play out. I support the idea of keeping children away from Mature games, but I'd rather it be from active parenting than active government. It's not just a principled stance too. I dislike playing multiplayer games like Grand Theft Auto IV and hearing a band of elementary students jabbering away over my headset.

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