Video games have come a long way. Within decades, they have gone from a fringe hobby to a major industry. But as sales increased and the market expanded, small and significant debates took place. As a child, your parents are gatekeepers between you and the world at large. If you had your preference, you might wear a motorcycle helmet and a clown suit to school, eat candy for lunch, and train the dog to do your chores.
But, you do not have your preference. The adults in your life make decisions on the clothes you wear, the food you eat, and your behavior. For as long as video games have been around, those same adults have decided, either actively or passively, whether video games are right for their kids. If they are, they then determine what types of games are acceptable. This might have resulted in some slammed doors and harsh words over your copy of Mortal Kombat, but it was a matter to be worked out within your family, and not something left to the government.
The latest instance of legislators attempting to change that balance of power was a proposed Oklahoma tax on “violent" video games. It is “proposed," because, at present, it has been defeated in committee. The law, the ideas behind it, and the recent decisions are an opportunity to consider the status of video games as protected free speech. Brown v EMA was a huge step forward for gaming, and will be powerful precedent demanding consideration when regulation is proposed. But this debate is far from over.
For background, we should first look at what happened in Brown v EMA. (Mark did a great recap of the case on Joystiq.) California Assembly Bill 1179, passed in 2005, banned the sale of violent videogames to minors, ordering application of labels to offending titles, and fining retail employees up to $1,000 per violation. The law was struck down, first in the District Court for the Northern District of California, and then in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court agreed to take the case, heard arguments in November of 2010, and released their decision in June of 2011.
In upholding the lower courts, the majority (7-2) refused to consider video games the protections of the First Amendment merely because of their unique appeal to minors. It was a sweeping acknowledgement of games as expression worth protection. Decisions about what to say and how to say it “are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority." This type of legislation receives strict scrutiny, and could not survive. The State has a legitimate purpose in protecting children, but “that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the speech to which children may be exposed." The interactive nature of games did not change that. Fees and penalties added up to $2 million for California.
Oklahoma House Bill 2649 proposed a 1% surtax on any video game rated Teen or higher. Proposed by Representative Will Fourkiller, the money was to support outdoor and counseling programs. On one hand, 1% would end up being about sixty cents for your average $60 game. That is not an amount of money likely to influence any buying decisions. This law was not as broad as California’s in Brown. But as people pointed out, for a law that claimed to target obesity, it would tax Get Up and Dance and Zumba Fitness 2. Both involve moving around, not sitting. Very few children buy their own video games, and for most that do they buy them with money given by their parents. The tax falls on adults, not children.
The common sense response to the proposal in the notes from the subcommittee showed skepticism on whether games deserved singling out. “Why not French fries or rap music or movies?" (At the same time especially!) It narrowly failed, 5 to 6. It may be the dissenters knew that if they ended up defending the legislation in court, it could get very expensive. But the reopening of the issue of whether there is correlation between playing video games and health problems is one worth considering.
Many things, in excess, are bad. Too much junk food is bad. So is television, and video games. But legislation designed to influence the decisions people make about these issues of child rearing have historically failed. The question of when it is appropriate for a child to consume “violent" entertainment is an important one. But ample entertainment already accessible to children is violent, as the majority noted in Brown. Involved parents make those decisions. Lawmakers have since backed out of similar proposals. It remains to be seen how other states will react.
Zack Bastian is an official contributor to Law of the Game. A third year student at George Washington University Law, Zack works at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Science and Technology Innovation Program and is a member of the American Intellectual Property Law Association. The opinions expressed in his columns are his own. Reach him at: zack[dawt]bastian[aat]gmail[dawt]com.