Howdy folks! I've been away from the computer/blog for the last few days attending a wedding, so I hope you're all well. I left South Texas hot and dry and, unfortunately, I found it unchanged upon my return. I think it's interesting how some things seem so prone to change--like weather, moods and gas prices--and other things are so resistant. Societal and cultural values are often some of the most resistant, I've noticed.
The Supreme Court ruled today that the state of California cannot prohibit minors from purchasing violent video games. The issue stemmed from a previous law made by the state which would fine retailers up to $1,000 if they sold violent games to children of a certain age. You can read more about it HERE.
The ruling basically keeps the purchasing decision in the hands of parents and the young people they give money to. Strictly regulating the content of video games isn't a new phenomenon, but it's a relatively new legal battle for the United States. Australia has had one of the strictest censorship programs in the western world for quite some time now. (You can read about it HERE.) The issue of violent games and their influence over the young people who play them has been broached before in the U.S., but no state had made any real attempt to legally regulate it until California.
It's no secret that I love video games. My generation was the first--starting with Atari--to grow up with a video game console in most households. I've seen the death of gaming as a niche form of entertainment, and its rebirth as the largest entertainment industry in the world. In 2009 video games earned more money than movies (all combined sales). Video games have multi-million dollar production costs and are only gaining in popularity as the generation that grew up enjoying them as kids have moved into adulthood and (surprise!) are still loving them.
Even still, I'm sure you're wondering why I'm talking about a video game law on a writing blog.
In the Supreme Court's ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia cited literature as a precedent for not meddling in in the lives of children's entertainment as it pertained to violence. Here's a quote from the article linked above: "Citing examples of violence in classic children’s literature like Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Lord of the Flies Justice Antonin Scalia said a state's right to protect minors, 'does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.' Scalia noted that 'this country has no tradition of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence,' citing a longrunning history of attempts to restrict violence in movies and comic books."
Movies have long been regulated. There are ratings, and theaters are 'supposed' to adhere to them. Rated R means Restricted, and no one under the age of 17 is allowed to watch unless they are accompanied by an adult. What gets you an R rating? Nudity and sex. Language and violence alone won't do it in most cases. Many other countries around the world view nudity and sex as lesser evils when compared to stabbing and shooting, but not the U.S. Here, boobies = bad and bullets = borderline.
It should also be pointed out that video games carry ratings too. Just not all of them. Only the most violent and provocative games carry the dreaded M rating (for mature), and retailers are at liberty to restrict (or not) purchase accordingly. In truth, the rating is more for parents than retailers.
Fans of freedom of choice, and those who hate censorship, will applaud the Court's decision. It clearly keeps state governments from putting social blinders on young people, and keeps the ball in the parent's court. They'll argue that censorship is a slippery slope and that, if allowed, we soon won't have control over what our children do or see if even one such law is allowed. On the other hand, parents who have kids sneaking to their friends house to steal cars and shoot prostitutes in the latest Grand Theft Auto game aren't quite so excited. They'll argue that seeing violence on TV and taking control of a character and acting out that violence are two very different things. That simulating the bashing of someone to death with a baseball bat is something no child should be allowed to do, regardless of what their parents think.
This brings me back to books. There is clearly a parallel in terms of both games and books providing entertainment of the 'made up' variety to people of all ages. Many readers and writers are quick to raise the hackles when people start talking about limiting access to certain types of literature due to content. I've done it here on this blog when religious bozos started banning books in Missouri on the basis of implied immorality and raciness. Are video games THAT different? Can we abhor censorship in our favorite form of entertainment, but not in others? You can see from Justice Scalia's statement above, other people are already making the correlation.
I'm most definitely not in favor of censorship. I do think the choices should be left up to parents and other responsible adults. However, I also think we should make it easier to make those choices. No parent should have to play every video game their kid brings home start to finish just to see if it's too violent. Nor should they be expected to read every book their child reads. Once they hit 9 or 10 and start reading 3 books a week like my nephew, that ceases to be a viable option for most busy parents. Apply a ratings system with easy to understand and clearly stated guidelines.
Ratings prevent censorship, not encourage it. If every video game was clearly rated for certain content, laws like the one in California could never be made. There could never be an argument for the 'unsuspecting child or parent'. It's written on the box, you knew what you were getting into. If a store allows your kid to buy a game that's over the suggested age, don't shop there any more. The same applies for books. Don't want your kids reading about making out? Put a notice on their library account.
The more I see issues like this make it all the way to the highest courts, the more I get nervous about the future when it comes to access to great works of literature (like Speak and Huck Finn), and even classic video games that I'd like to someday share with my kids. (How long until someone deems Zelda as too violent for all of that sword play, or too tawdry for all that Princess smooching?) Particularly in the book world, our attitudes toward censorship have been way too reactive as opposed to proactive. I think it's time for that to change.