California edict denies sales of violent games to children

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to review a California law banning sale or rental of violent games to children is raising concern within the videogame industry, which has a great deal at stake in the outcome.

The law has never taken effect because of lower court rulings. But a decision from the high court that sides with California could impact a major source of revenue for the industry, since many of the titles targeted by the law are among its biggest sellers.

The hearing, which will take place in the Court’s next term beginning in October, will determine how far free speech protects games. If the Justices rule that community standards outweigh the artistic elements of games, that opens the door for not just California, but all states to regulate the sale of violent games.

Industry execs were expressing surprise and disappointment over Monday’s ruling by the high court.

“(The Entertainment Merchants Assn.) obviously would have preferred that the Supreme Court decline review of the lower court decision finding the California videogame restriction law to be unconstitutional,” said Bo Andersen, President and CEO of the EMA. “We are confident, however, that when the Supreme Court conducts its review, it will conclude that the lower court correctly analyzed the law and reached the appropriate conclusion.”

In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the controversial law, which prohibited the sale or rental of violent videogames to minors and imposed a strict labeling requirement on games. The videogame industry immediately appealed it, and a series of courts sided with publishers. Those rulings maintained that the state did not have the right to regulate sales of titles, since it did not produce sufficient evidence that the games cause physical and psychological harm to minors.

Just last week, the high court struck down a federal law banning videos that depicted animal cruelty. The videogame industry is hoping the court will rule similarly in this case. But there is a major difference in the two cases, as this law is aimed at protecting children rather than the population at large.

As the Court recognized last week in the U.S. vs. Stevens case, the First Amendment protects all speech other than just a few ‘historic and traditional categories’ that are ‘well-defined and narrowly limited,’?” said Michael D. Gallagher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Software Assn., the trade association for game publishers. “We are hopeful that the Court will reject California’s invitation to break from these settled principles.”

Action games, as a category, make up 20% of all videogames sold, according to the ESA. They’re also quite often the ones that bring in the most money. New “Grand Theft Auto 4″ and “Halo” launches are full-scale entertainment events. And last year’s “Modern Warfare 2″ set a Guinness World Record as the most successful entertainment launch of all time, taking in $401 million in its first 24 hours.

All of these titles would be classified as violent under the California law. And the sales numbers could take a big hit if the law is upheld.

While the videogame industry self regulates with a ratings system, much like film, it’s not foolproof. Teens are frequent players of the games, and the California law would impose fines of up to $1,000 for anyone who sells a violent game to minors.

The industry doesn’t argue that children should be playing these games, but it fears regulation could lead to other court rulings that further restrict the First Amendment rights of developers.

“This is another sign that gamers need to wake up and get organized to protect their rights,” said Jeff Brown, director of corporate communications for Electronic Arts. “Censorship and content restrictions are a very real threat to videogames. Any gamer who has not registered with the ESA’s VideoGame Voter Network loses the right to complain when government starts taking games off the market.”

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