Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California law banning the sale of violent video games to children is unconstitutional. Here, Cynthia Baron, academic director of the digital media program at Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies, discusses First Amendment cases in the gaming industry, how the newest ruling may affect the video game rating system and whether children are capable of judging computer-generated violence.
Current video game ratings by the Entertainment Software Rating Board were created to inform consumers of the level of violence in video games. How might the Supreme Court’s ruling affect the rating system?
Ratings are not mandated by law; rather, they are a form of self-policing. Historically, “new” media adopt them during their growth phase as a protective measure against external restrictions. But they tend to persist even after the initial threat disappears. The comic book industry’s self-policing board, for example, only recently disbanded after almost 60 years in existence. I expect that video game ratings will follow this pattern. I foresee refinement of the rating categories and descriptions to distinguish between sexual and violent content. Given the progressive overlap of video games and movies in the entertainment sphere, it wouldn’t surprise me if the two industries moved to a common rating code. If that happens, content that combines strong violence with graphic sexuality might still remain outside the reach of minors.
This ruling enables children to buy video games of any rating without parental supervision. Are young people equipped to make that judgment?
That’s an impossible question to answer definitively. Having said that, there is no solid research to indicate that violence in video games has any long-term effect on its consumers, although researchers have been looking for this connection for 20 years. The Supreme Court cited the absence of proven harm in its decision last week. On a practical level, there are people in their 20s who are ill-equipped to handle some content, while others much younger can be unaffected. Most parents will continue to impose their own standards of appropriateness on purchases, particularly for young children.
How common are First Amendment battles in the gaming industry? Do you think attempts to regulate video game violence will persist?
There have been many attempts to regulate video game violence at every governmental level. This Supreme Court decision, however, is extremely broad and definitive, leaving little room for prospective legislation to regulate games on the basis of their content. Essentially, minors are citizens, too, and setting artificial limits on what constitutes appropriate content is a slippery slope.
I expect that there will be some political grandstanding, but video games have joined newspapers, TV shows, movies, graphic novels and books as protected media. That doesn’t mean that some new technology — something that offers a virtual reality, hyper-immersive platform, for example — won’t restart the cycle. It will. But if a body as conservative as the current Supreme Court has affirmed the First Amendment with a clear majority, the bar against regulation will likely remain high.