Will the Supreme Court bar minors from buying violent video games?

Silent Hill: Downpour, unveiled at this year’s E3, is the newest game in the series that pits humans against monsters. Will an upcoming Supreme Court ruling ban its sale to minors?

As game journalists decompress from this year’s E3, word from the Supreme Court on a California video-game law is still pending.

Justices heard the case, Brown vs. EMA (formerly Schwarzenegger vs. EMA), Nov. 2, but have yet to issue a ruling on the law, which bans the sale of “ultraviolent” video games to buyers under 18. California courts found the law unconstitutional in 2007, so it never took effect. Among the cases before the court, this one has been waiting the longest for resolution.

That’s giving many the opportunity to speculate on just what is going on behind the scenes. For example:

The longer a case has been awaiting resolution, the longer the decision is likely to be, and the greater the number of justices weighing in with dissenting or concurring statements. One case handed down on the last day of the last term, involving gun-owner rights, ran for more than 200 pages over five separate opinions.

Readers may recall that in March, Michael McConnell, director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, said, “The Supreme Court is not likely to say that this statute is constitutional. I think they’re going to strike it down. But I don’t think they’re going to go as far as say these types of statutes are unconstitutional — they might uphold more narrowly defended statutes in the future.”

A recent United Press International analysis scrutinizes both sides of the argument, including the fact that California is asking the Supreme Court to consider applying this law in the same way as the 1968 ruling that barred the sale of “obscene” material to minors:

California wants the Supreme Court to review the law under the standard set by 1968’s Ginsberg vs. New York: “Under the Ginsberg standard, the act must be upheld so long as it was not irrational for the California Legislature to determine that exposure to the material regulated by the statute is harmful to minors.”

Although McConnell thought this law would be struck down, some have argued that the delay in issuing a ruling means the Supreme Court might uphold it. It’s also possible that they’ll strike it down, but their ruling will include information on how a narrower, rewritten bill could be constitutional.

What do you think the Supreme Court will do? Will they let minors continue to buy violent video games, or will they make such sales illegal?


7 responses to “Will the Supreme Court bar minors from buying violent video games?

  1. I think there is a high likelihood they will bar sales to minors… Seems reasonable based on existing protocols for other goods and services that can be purchased eg tobacco, alcohol, porn, ticket sales to movies, etc

    • Actually, ticket sales to R-rated movies (and purchasing R-rated DVDs) isn’t illegal here in the US — it’s frowned upon, but not illegal. Porn is illegal. One thing that I thought was interesting is that some folks have pointed out that while sexual content has been forbidden to teens here in the US, violent content really hasn’t been. And since this case is about violence, not sex, that creates the possibility that they won’t restrict game sales — particularly since the alternative might make it possible for laws to be passed against having access to R-rated movies, stickered albums, and other forms of media that aren’t currently restricted.

      • Interesting! We have Internet shopping of course, but restrictions for all sorts of things physically sold here. We have x rated shops which deal with the demand for porn, shops dedicate to selling cigarettes, etc. Also there is widespread practice of carding for anything age restricted (buying alcohol) with penalties applicable to the vendor for failure to comply with regulations. If you believe the cigarette supplier adverts tho, we are a ‘nanny state’.

  2. Michael Carusi

    Dunia, don’t compare video games to porn, alcohol, or cigarettes. You’re comparing vices (which are KNOWN to have a bad impact on minors, let alone people in general) to complex works with narrative, plot, extensive voice acting, and artwork that represent thousands of jobs and millions of dollars. The notion that video games are equivocal to any of those things is not only backwards but very naive.

    • Michael, while I totally agree with you, I think it’s important to examine the comparison of video games to “vices” as you say. So much has been made of the “addictive” quality of video games, it’s as though people think we should keep kids from buying or playing them for that reason alone. The truth is, many people who want to keep kids from violent video games don’t see them as works of art, but simply empty entertainment that possess no real positive qualities.

  3. Actually, very little has been made of the addictive quality of video games, and that’s not even why California is pushing for this law, so that’s a completely different issue. There’s no formal medical evidence anywhere in the world that video games are addictive in the same way that a book enthralling someone isn’t addictive.

    It should be noted that Yee has more than once referred to video games as art, which makes what he’s trying to do even more paradoxical. He wants free speech, but just on his terms, like most of the people who want to restrict games under some misguided notion of protecting kids. That’s pretty frightening.

    • Michael, I’ve seen lots of people throw in the “and, they’re addictive!” argument on top of everything else they think is wrong with violent video games. It’s not necessarily the focus, but it’s mentioned often, especially lately. And no, there’s no evidence that they’re addictive (though when people study it, they compare it to other compulsive behaviors, such as gambling).

      Agree with you totally on Yee.

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