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Today Video Games, Tomorrow Online Communities?
April 30, 2002
By AngelKnight

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
  • DOOM
  • 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.

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