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Sunday, November 07, 2010

Tumultuous Times for Entertainment Mediums

As we all know, the midterm elections were held last week. But another interesting political story involved Gov. Schwarzenegger of California, the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA), and the U.S. Supreme Court. The Chief Justices heard arguments concerning a bill signed into California law in October 2005. This law made it illegal to sell or rent violent video games to persons under the age of eighteen. It further required producers of such games to provide a sticker on the front of their product displaying the number "18". The law was challenged by the EMA, and U.S. District Court Judge Whyte granted first a preliminary and later a permanent injunction, halting the enforcement of the law on the grounds that it was a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution. The Ninth Circuit appeal also found that the law was a violation.

This brings us to the hearing that occurred this past week. In light of the petition for certiorari, the Supreme Court heard arguments concerning the validity and necessity of such a law and its influence by and over the First Amendment. Although we will have to wait until June of next year to receive their ruling, let us consider the impact of such a law were the Supreme Court to overturn the prior decisions.

First, is there a market failure? In its current state, most forms of entertainment media including video games receive content ratings through either the Motion Picture Association of America, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or the self-policing of the Recording Industry Association of America (the famous "Parental Advisory" sticker). These policies are intended to assist parents in terms of consumer information as to what is contained in what they are purchasing: If they do not want their kids exposed, they can use the ratings provided to either make an immediate decision or to strive for more information before purchase. It is not illegal to actually sell or rent any of these forms of entertainment media prior to the attempt made by this California law. Although there have been some cases where violent crimes have been explained away by the accused under the guise of the influence of video games, they are not all that common. And, if the self-policing attitudes of the corporations do indeed provide sufficient information for the consumer, why exactly should the governments, either state or federal, get involved?

If such a law is passed, I do agree with the concerns voiced over its impact on not only the sales of video games but of their creation as well. Innovation and imagination may be stifled on an unprecedented level. As Justice Scalia commented, "I'm concerned about the producer of the games who has to know what he has to do in order to comply with the law. [...] a law that has criminal penalties has to be clear. And how is the manufacturer to know whether a particular violent game is covered or not?" So, why would a publisher take a project if they knew that it may cause a media uproar and thus become difficult to sell? And what of the rights of those individuals that do not find issues with such media? Will it eventually become illegal for a parent to purchase the game for their child if they choose to do so due to the possibility that it exposes others' children by association? The law could easily and unintentionally strip the consumer/ citizen of consumer rights and drastically alter their senses of responsibility.

Furthermore, the vagueness of the standards used in determining what exactly is violent or deviant behavior requiring such censorship causes concern in many individuals due to the impact such a Supreme Court decision could have on the other forms of entertainment media. Justice Ginsberg asked, "What about films? What about comic books? Why are video games so special?" If we are to accept that it is the government's role to police both producers and retailers of violent video games, will we eventually see similar censorship of movies, further censorship of music, and possibly even literary works? Although the argument for such censorship revolves around a moral and ethical obligation towards the protection of minors and their upbringing, I simply fail to see how such a potentially harmful step regarding the market for entertainment mediums cannot be addressed by the parents themselves. And if we keep slapping stickers on the front of products, we might soon be incapable of telling what it is we're even looking at.





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