Video Game Violence Case Reaches Supreme Court

Dennis Faas's picture

The Supreme Court is re-examining the hotly disputed issue of video game violence. In an ongoing case, it's deciding whether to uphold a California law that would ban violent games being sold to kids under 18 years of age.

The law, passed in 2005, would have introduced a $1,000 fine for any retailer caught selling "violent" games to minors. However, it wouldn't have stopped parents or other adults buying games and letting children play them.

The law soon came under challenge and in 2009 California's highest court rejected it. That ruling said that there was no conclusive evidence that playing violent games seriously harmed children.

That point may be the heart of the case. If the Supreme Court disagrees and believes violent games do cause psychological trauma, it may decide a ban on sales to minors is legitimate.

If, however, the court agrees there's no evidence of damage, it may decide it's not the law's role to say which games are appropriate for minors, and that doing so would violate the First Amendment.

Defining "Value for Minors" Could Prove Tricky

One of the most contentious elements of the California law is that as well as defining a violent game as one in which players have the option of "killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being" it says that a game should only be banned if this violence "causes the game, as a whole, to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors." (Source:

The big problem there is that the law takes what is effectively a subjective concept (literary or artistic merit) and attempts to turn it into a legal standard. Those in the video game industry believe their work is a legitimate form of art and entertainment. Critics of the industry disagree and consider it of lesser artistic merit, at best. That debate may be difficult to incorporate into legislation.

Voluntary System Making A Difference

Defenders of the industry point to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report last year that says the existing voluntary age rating scheme for games is more effective than its counterpart systems for music and movies. The FTC said only 20 per cent of minors were able to buy M-rated games, down from 42 per cent in 2006. (Source:

Ultimately, though, the case will likely come down to how the Supreme Court judges view the role of law. The chances are that most people, game supporters included, think stores should not sell violent games directly to children. The question is whether the law should enforce that position.

Unfortunately for gamers used to instant gratification, the judicial process isn't quite so quick: a final decision from the nine judges isn't expected until some time in the first half of 2011.

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