Common Sense, Videogames and a Man Called Yee
Published in Commentary | 30 Jun 2011
Advocates of free speech and artistic integrity within the videogame industry were given much to celebrate this week, as the US Supreme Court voted against a law that would punish retailers for selling violent videogames to minors. As it stands only a voluntary system, run by the ESRB, guides retailers into the proper sale of videogames with no legal sanctions available to penalise companies who infringe the classification system. The creator of the law, California Senator Leyland Yee, has vowed to continue the fight against the Supreme Courts ruling by better defining the specific acts of digital violence he wishes to curtail. The Entertainment Merchants Association is understandably jubilant over the ruling and, in a statement posted on their website, they said:
“EMA welcomes today’s Supreme Court ruling that found the California video game restriction law to be unconstitutional. We are gratified that our position that the law violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression has been vindicated and there now can be no argument whether video games are entitled to the same protection as books, movies, music, and other expressive entertainment.”
Videogame publishers and developers have been equally flamboyant in their response to the decision, with Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello stating:
“Everybody wins on this decision – the Court has affirmed the Constitutional rights of game developers; adults keep the right to decide what’s appropriate in their houses; and store owners can sell games without fear of criminal prosecution,” He continued: “Throughout American history, every new creative medium has to fight to establish its rights. Like books and film, videogames have had to face down censors and stand up for creative freedom.”
With the creativity of an entire (multi-billion dollar) industry at stake it comes as no surprise that much of its top-level players are patting themselves on the collective back for fighting the good fight. I imagine the majority of gamers are also whooping in delight at the apparent success of the EMA, but this is not just a victory for creative integrity insomuch as it is a triumph for retailers.
Everyone is agreed that children need protecting from adult entertainment, and it seems counter-intuitive that we should celebrate a decision which goes against this initiative.
John Riccitiello talks about this being a victory for creative freedom. I disagree; with this law in place developers could still produce games as violently as they saw fit but retailers would be forced to sell the games to their intended audience, incurring a potential (albeit dubious) financial loss. I imagine Electronic Arts would combat this by duly adapting their games enabling them to reach the widest audience possible. A true victory for creative freedom would see EA releasing their games unaltered and unfazed by the restrictions but true to their original artistic vision – somehow I feel this would not be the case.
Games retail is changing at an unfathomable rate at the moment. An online store such as amazon.com can offer huge discounts on games and consoles that most high street stores simply can’t compete with. Equally, the digital download market has gained unprecedented popularity over the past few years leading many to believe that over the counter transactions may soon become a thing of the past. Had limitations upon transactions been imposed, many retailers may have found themselves one step closer to the abyss.
Despite this near miss and an otherwise bleak financial outlook, games retailers do share a responsibility to ensure inappropriate material does not find its way into the possession of minors. Whilst this battle has been won the war rages on and now is the time for developers, distributors and retailers to prove they can act in an responsible fashion and adhere to the guidelines set out by the ESRB. In a statement released after the courts decision Senator Yee was quoted as saying:
“Unfortunately, the majority of the Supreme Court once again put the interests of corporate America before the interests of our children.” He continued “We’re poring through the opinions to see where we can create a pathway for a successful bill that could withstand a challenge,”
Fighting talk indeed. Despite this obvious success for a medium I love, videogames cannot pretend underage selling does not occur. Senator Yee was accurate when he said this was a decision which favours corporate America; I doubt anybody was happier at this decision than the money men in major publishing houses. Be that as it may, I’d hope honest designers and coders would carry on unperturbed by the outcome of this ruling, led by their creative integrity and not their pockets. Only time and another Supreme Court ruling can answer that conundrum but in the meantime, and as good human adults, we should all take the time to see what our kids are up to; perhaps then the Supreme Court could spend it’s time on something slightly more pressing than a self-righteous senator trying to score column inches.