Video Games, Tomorrow Online Communities?
April 30, 2002
On April 25, 2002, Senior U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh
ruled against the Interactive Digital Software Association
(IDSA), a video game developers' association, in their case
against a St. Louis County ordinance that restricted the access
of minors to Mature rated games.
Now, this might not be so worrisome, except that this case
now sets a precedent that is dangerous - very dangerous. Because
when Judge Limbaugh ruled against the IDSA, he did so by negating
their First Amendment rights, stating in his decision that
"no conveyance of ideas, expression, or anything else that
could possibly amount to speech. The court finds that video
games have more in common with board games and sports than
they do with motion pictures."
First off, this ruling seems to fly in the face of common
thought. After all, are video games not one of the major causes
of the school shootings over the nation? Are they not the
"corruptor of youth"?
But it seems that the right wing wants to have its cake and
eat it too - saying that video games are causing juvenile
delinquency while at the same time saying that they aren't
speech, so they can be regulated with impunity. The case gets
even more laughable when you see the list of games that the
judge used as his "sample" to make a judgment:
- Mortal Kombat
- Fear Effect
- The Resident of Evil Creek
Four games. Oops, make that THREE games - I'll bet you won't
find The Resident of Evil Creek at your local Wal-Mart
or Electronics Boutique. And the choices of games leave a
lot to be desired. Of the three games listed, only one has
any semblance of a plot (Fear Effect), and that title
was never a major title in the market.
What about the Final Fantasy series, with their deep
and touching storylines (the death scene in Final Fantasy
VII is considered to be one of the most moving scenes in video
games, and has reduced many a gamer to tears) - for that matter,
what about anything that Square made? How about Silent
Hill, which is a much more terrifying and cerebral horror
experience than the slasher flicks that Judge Limbaugh deemed
to be speech. What about these titles?
To say that video games are not speech based on these titles
is like grabbing three random Harlequin "book mill" romances,
and then condemn American literature on the basis of that.
And don't forget the number of video games that have been
made into movies - such as Mortal Kombat. Finally,
there's the recent upcry over the white supremacist game Ethnic
Cleansing, which they are using as a recruiting tool -
if games don't transmit ideas, then why would one be used
to transmit hate?
But then I thought about the greater ramifications of this,
and I began to shake in terror. If this ruling is upheld,
then it will be legal to declassify differing forms of communication
as speech, stripping them of the protection of the First Amendment.
Mediums of communication online such as Internet Relay Chat,
instant messaging, and bulletin boards could be called non-speech,
and thus subject to regulation without limits.
Though this may seem far-fetched, consider that many modern
online games have built in chat clients - if the game can
be controlled, then why not the clients that lay within them?
And then why not other chat programs? This is a very slippery
slope that we are sitting on here.
While I agree that there should be laws protecting minors
from material that may not be suited for them, to use that
as an excuse to legitimize censorship is wrong. Video games,
just like movies, are speech. And such speech is protected
by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution - to say it
is not is to lead us down the road to censorship of all media.
Hopefully, this decision can be overturned - because if it
cannot, I fear for the future of discourse.
The author considers himself an "activist gamer", and finds
any form of censorship abhorrent.