Thank God Steve Jobs isn't on the Supreme Court.
Our nation's highest justices, you see, are in the midst of debating a case about violent video games. They're trying to determine whether the government has the right to decide which video games minors should and shouldn't be allowed to buy. In other words, they're trying to determine whether centuries-old guidelines about free speech still apply to modern forms of media like Playstations and Xboxes.
Their decision, needless to say, could have serious implications on the future of First Amendment rights. And I think we can all imagine how Steve Jobs would vote.
The Supreme Court Violent Video Game Case
The Supreme Court case revolves around a California law passed in 2005. The law makes it illegal for anyone to sell a video game deemed as "violent" to a minor. Breaking it would result in a fine of a thousand dollars per violation.
Thanks to legal challenges, the law has never actually gone into effect. And now, its fate rests in the hands of the high court justices.
We can only hope that the U.S. Supreme Court agrees with the federal courts that have struck down this law in the past. It isn't even limited to California; similar laws have been enacted in eight states overall, according to NPR, and have been deemed unconstitutional by federal judges in each instance. It's no small coincidence.
Let me be clear about one thing: I rarely play video games -- and I'm certainly not a minor -- but I have every reason to be concerned about this decision. And so do you.
Violent Video Game Ban: Questions and Concerns
Ultimately, the Supreme Court case comes down to the divisive question of how much the government should "protect" us from "offensive" materials.
Consider this: The video game industry has already established a ratings system similar to what we see with movies. If anything, it may be even more effective than its film-based cousin: A 2009 Federal Trade Commission report PDF found only 20 percent of minors were able to purchase "mature"-rated video games, compared to 28 percent that were able to buy tickets to R-rated movies. Does the government really need to intervene and get involved? Isn't this system -- not to mention that silly ol' thing called parental supervision -- sufficient enough?
Principles aside, the violent video game law poses plenty of practical challenges. According to the law's wording, a violent video game would be defined as one "in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being" in a manner that's "patently offensive," appeals to a person's "deviant or morbid interests," and lacks "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."
So who's going to make the call as to which video games are "patently offensive" and which aren't? Or, as Justice Antonin Scalia asked during the arguments, "What's a 'deviant' violent video game? As opposed to what -- a 'normal' violent video game?"
Like with Apple's arbitrary App Store approval system, we're looking at a purely subjective judgment. Unlike Apple's little world, however, this is the real government we're dealing with here -- and granting this type of power is a dangerous precedent to set.
"If you are supposing a category of violent materials dangerous to children, then how do you cut it off at video games? What about films? What about comic books?" asked U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Supporters of the California video game law counter that argument with the notion that this scenario is different; because players are actively involved, they say, the violent acts are more damaging to their minds than the graphic violence in movies and on TV. They've even dug up some studies that suggest playing violent video games "increases aggressive thought and behavior" and "engenders poor school performance" in minors. Those studies, of course, conveniently make the mistake of assuming causation from correlation -- just because some kids who play video games also have behavioral problems doesn't mean that the video games caused those problems -- but hey, it's far easier to jump to that conclusion than to search for a real explanation.
Violent Video Game Ban: Broader Implications
Here's the kicker: Even if you accept the "video games are different" argument, opening the door to government-controlled content regulation is asking for trouble. Do we want to make the First Amendment a medium-specific form of protection? If evil, mind-warping video games warrant special consideration, what other modern media will need supervision next? Surely our smartphone app markets should be regulated too, right? There's an awful lot of interactive material there that we need to be protected from -- just ask you-know-who. If this law is green-lighted, we'd better brace ourselves for an awful lot of asterisks under America's "free speech" header.
Finally, with government-enforced fines on selling violent video games, how long will it be until the gaming industry itself starts to change? Forbes.com blogger Paul Tassi raises an interesting point:
"If video games are equated with pornography and it becomes a crime to sell them to minors, 'family-friendly' retailers might change their store policies and someone like Wal-Mart might ban all these games from their shelves entirely. This would in turn cause developers to tone down the violence in their titles to make sure that every outlet will sell them."
All factors considered, the outcome of this case is extremely consequential. When real world policies start to resemble those of Steve Jobs' world, there is definite cause for concern.