Flawless Victory? Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Violent Video Games

Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.
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Who should decide which games are fit for children to play?  (Photo: Reuters/Mike Blake)

Rest easy, Bieber Nation. You can still sneak that purchase of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.

The Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision on Monday to strike down a proposed California law that would have instituted a $1,000 fine on retailers selling violent and sexually charged video games to underage gamers.

"As a means of assisting concerned parents it (the law) is seriously overinclusive because it abridges the First Amendment rights of young people whose parents (and aunts and uncles) think violent video games are a harmless pastime," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the majority opinion.

"No doubt a state possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm. But that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed."

THE RATINGS GAME

While a boon for game manufacturers and retailers, the decision was a disappointment for parents and religious groups that blame the games for what they see as a nationwide uptick in violent and anti-social behavior.

"The First Amendment does not disable government from helping parents make such a choice here—a choice not to have their children buy extremely violent, interactive games," wrote Stephen Breyer of the dissenting opinion.

Video games are subject to a voluntary rating system regulated, much like the film industry, by a somewhat arbitrary set of nationwide, industry-imposed standards created by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).

Although there have been attempts to levy fines on less-than-compliant store owners, most enjoy free reign compared to places like the U.K., where retailers can be slapped with up to $10,000 fine and six months in jail for selling "M"-rated titles to youths.

Most stores don't take advantage of that freedom, however. According to a Federal Trade Commission undercover shopper survey, video game retailers were among the most vigilant enforcers of the ratings system—more so than music CD retailers and movie DVD retailers.

“Our undercover shopper survey demonstrates some progress,” said David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But more needs to be done.”

ON PARENTS TO REGULATE

So who will pick up the slack? With 90 percent of teens saying their parents "never" check the ratings before allowing them to buy or rent video games, now might be the time for a little extra vetting from Mom and Dad.

"[It's] made clear that the video game industry effectively empowers parents to be the ones to decide which games are right for their children," said ESRB president Patricia Vance to CNN.

As for the game publishers, they're understandably thrilled with the decision to leave the choice up to discerning parents. 

"Believe it or not, I do have some confidence left in America and the Constitution," said Vince Desi, CEO of Tucson-based Running with Scissors. "When we lose the freedom of expression, the country is toast. . . But this worked out."

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