Saturday, December 03, 2005
Videogames and free speech: I've been playing videogames since the venerable Atari 2600 hit the market. In our house, you got to open one present on Christmas Eve -- and my mother suggested that I open the small box and not the larger, more Atari 2600 shaped box. The small box contained a Space Invaders game -- which made it obvious what was in the big box. After playing coy for a few minutes, my father succumbed to whiny pleas and allowed an exception to the one present rule.
Violence? Boy was Space Invaders violent. Not only did you kill perfectly peaceful aliens -- they didn't fire back on the first level -- but you would often open up firing lines through your own bunkers.
Of course you can't compare those ancient graphics with videogames today. And, while I'm a staunch supporter of the First Amendment, I'm not sure that the courts' jurisprudence hasn't gotten out of whack in recent years. On Friday, a federal judge struck down an Illinois law that restricted the sale of "violent and sexually explicit" video games to minors.
Is a "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" free speech? Certainly. Does it deserve the level of protection that the courts have granted to it? I don't think so.
Just look at the Supreme Court's recent First Amendment jurisprudence. McCain-Feingold ended up giving political speech -- the speech which the First Amendment was primarily designed to protect -- less protection than these violent video games.
You can't provide minors with pornography -- but what about computer-simulated pornography? What if Rockstar, the maker of GTA San Andreas, had left in intentionally what the Hot Coffee mod unlocked -- the simulated sex mini-game? The ESRB would have rated the game Adults Only, but the state has no right to regulate that simulated pornography? Or bar its sale to minors?
The Supreme Court has already ruled that computer-generated child porn, because no minor is actually harmed in the creation of the smut, is legal. What happens when some videogame maker creates a game on a next-gen console that is so real, so lifelike and so pornographic? Responsible retailers won't sell that game to minors, but not all retailers are are responsible.
And not all parents are responsible either.
I was there a little more than a year ago when Halo 2 was released at midnight. Because I work a swing shift, I could stay up quite late and play that M-rated (equivalent of an R-rated movie) game with some friends to the wee hours. I arrived in the store -- a major, nationwide videogame retailer -- at about 11:30 and already it was packed with elementary, junior high and high school kids -- on a school night. There was barely a parent in sight.
I don't buy into the Jack Thompson belief that violent video games are responsible for making kids more violent or turning them into killers. However, I also don't believe that passing a law requiring a parent or guardian to be present to purchase an M- or AO-rated game is a free speech/free expression issue.