June 27, 2011 marked a historic day for the gaming industry, as the US Supreme Court declared that video games share the same First Amendment Rights to free speech of other popular forms of media, like books, music and movies. This has been a hot button issue in California since 2005 when Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill restricting the sale and rental of violent video games to minors.
Since then, video game enthusiasts and activists alike have been in a versus match with California State and the US government to overthrow the bill for being “unconstitutional”. Together with over 180 different organizations, The Electronic Merchants Association (EMA) brought the fight to the Supreme Court back in November of 2010.
To gain some insights on this issue, I spoke with Rich Taylor, the Senior Vice President of Communications at the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), a US based organization that serves the business and public affairs needs of digital game developers and publishers, and was instrumental in helping this decision pass. Working together with the EMA and the 180 groups involved, Taylor referred to themselves as an “army” fighting against the accusation and the idea that games should be held to a different standard than other popular media. Through this process, Taylor learned that gaming advocates were not alone in their opinion. He found support in many outspoken leaders throughout the political spectrum, the tech industry, social scientists and researches, as well as a wealth of academics who study the effects of popular media on children. Regardless of the backgrounds his supporters had, their common denominator was that they all believed this bill was blatantly unconstitutional and as an “army”, they brought with them plenty of ammunition to the Supreme Court.
One of the most relevant points of data in their possession was the work of over 80 signatories that proved violence in video games does not have any direct correlation to violent behavior in minors. According to Taylor, to make their case, the State of California was largely using inaccurate data that the Supreme Court has repeatedly and unanimously stated lacked any sufficient evidence. However, the game industry did not rest on their laurels in their defense. Rich Taylor detailed many of the tools that are currently in place that make digital games the best regulated entertainment sector in existence. From organizations like the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), which assigns rating to any and every commercial game on the market, to systems in a retailer’s point of sale that require clerks to check for ID whenever an age restricted game is scanned, all the way down to features that exist on all commercial gaming consoles that allow parents to restrict content at will.
Rich Taylor likens these industry standard to “seat belts”, claiming that all the tools any parent would ever need to protect their child are already baked into the sale and rental of games and on the systems to play them – you just need to use them to gain their benefits. But as a whole, this was also a fight for the entertainment industry to protect itself and to retain the constitutional rights. Taylor personified his fear of the gaming industry losing its rights to seeing “The Ghost of Gaming’s Future”. Much like a character in the Charles Dickens novel “A Christmas Carol”, he saw a possible future where the entire entertainment industry deteriorated into system where the government had control over its expression and sales, rather than the consumers themselves.
With vigor, Rich Taylor explained to me a change in the tides. Like the other entertainment industries before games, the government tried to restrict and censor them. Politicians fought them because they felt a sense of low risk and high reward. Back then, industries like comics, music, and movies didn’t have the power that games do. Taylor shared that the Video Game Voters network has over 300,000 members and counting and is working towards bringing that number to one million. His belief is that if we can educate and unify over one million gamers and help them understand the law and how it affects their hobby, those who choose to restrict gaming will now see their attempts as high risk and low reward.
Rich Taylor feels this decision has started a new chapter for the rights of entertainment creators and consumers. As society sees games as a means of cultural, political, and personal expression, the idea of “social impact games” may become more common. As the personal identifier of a “gamer” falls away, more of society will see games as a powerful form of expression in the same way other works of art such as painting, music, movies, writing, and comics have done in the past. Games may soon have the power to move nations, bridge gaps, and tell stories that would otherwise not have the chance to be told. Games are works of art now fit to be in museums as well as the palm of your hand. They inspire millions everyday and take up billions of hours to enjoy. No other form of art can say the same.
June 27, 2011 marked the day that games became free. The decision to save the world from invading alien hordes or from ourselves is now all ours. With this freedom, we should not be asking ourselves what game should we play next, but rather what we can we create now…