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Violent Game Law Met With Skepticism, Interest At Supreme Court

Violent Game Law Met With Skepticism, Interest At Supreme Court

November 2, 2010 | By Kris Graft

November 2, 2010 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC

The Supreme Court appeared alternately skeptical and intrigued with the State of California's arguments in support of a game bill that would restrict sales of violent games to minors, as the video game industry's top supporters appeared optimistic the law would be found unconstitutional.

Oral arguments over the bill took place Tuesday morning, and several of the justices expressed concern that the bill would violate the First Amendment, The Wall Street Journal reported.

"Some of the Grimm's Fairy Tales are quite grim," Justice Antonin Scalia told one of California's attorneys. "Are they OK? Are you going to ban them, too?"

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg asked California a question that the video game industry has been asking throughout the course of the ordeal: "What about films? What about comic books? Why are video games special?"

[UPDATE: Gamasutra's Chris Morris attended the Washington D.C. hearing and provides in-depth analysis and quotations from the event.]

And the justices also questioned how the state would determine what games are "excessively violent," as the bill states, and therefore subject to sales restrictions.

Conversely, the Los Angeles Times noted dissonance, with Justice Stephen G. Breyer asking "why isn't it common sense" that if the law can forbid selling pictures of a "naked woman" to the under-age, it can also stop scenes "of gratuitous torture of children" in a video game to minors.

In the weeks leading up to today's oral arguments, numerous media groups have backed the video game industry, including the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Association of American Publishers, among many others. These non-gaming industries fear the passage of the bill could lead to new legislation seeking to ban or restrict certain content in their own spaces.

Following the arguments, top brass from the game industry trade group the Entertainment Software Association seemed hopeful that the Court would land on the side of gaming.

Attorney Paul Smith, who argued on behalf of the games industry, said [via Kotaku], "I hope [the Court] is coming away very skeptical of the notion that just because someone can show you a video game that some people think is offensive, that somehow justifies coming in with a whole regulatory regime, particularly when there is a whole voluntary regime, which is working..."

The game industry is self-monitored by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which decides if games are rated "E" for "Everyone" to "M" for "Mature" to "AO" for "Adults Only," among other content ratings and descriptors.

"[Video games are] just methods of delivering content that is protected speech in this country," Smith added.

ESA CEO Michael Gallagher said that the law is "unwarranted, unnecessary and clearly unconstitutional. It'd restrain the speech and the creative instincts and the entrepreneurial activity in the video game industry."

He said that the Court appeared up-to-speed on the video game industry, its games and the medium overall. "This was a court that was prepared, that was aware and understanding of how exciting video games are," Gallagher added. "...What's at stake here is the First Amendment."

Leland Yee, the California State Senator who authored the original bill, defended the purpose of the measure, and said it does not look to ban ultraviolent video games.

"At the end, what is important in our bill is the fact that parents who want their kids to have access to [violent games], they can have access to [them]," he said. "So it doesn't really limit, it just gives parents some control about what their kids can or cannot do."

Asked if the law would lead to restrictions of the sale of violent or mature content in other entertainment industries, Yee replied, "This is not a bill that will ban the sale of violence. ["Excessively violent" games are] a subset of violent video games. We made it very, very clear that this bill was narrowly tailored. ... We were respectful of the First Amendment." A ruling on the legislation is expected in June.

You can read the full transcript of this morning's arguments on the Supreme Court's website [PDF].

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