Ratings and Retailers and Regulations, Oh My.

Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California law — a law that would have made it illegal for retailers to sell video games rated for certain ages to children who were below that age — is unconstitutional because it violates the free speech rights of video game producers.

So, let’s just summarize this:

1)There’s already a voluntary rating system in place for video games (you can see examples of them on this site and on the boxes of most video games).
2)This rating system gives age ranges for what ages this game is appropriate for, from E (everyone) to AO (adults only).
3)California wanted to make that formal and force retailers to follow those guidelines in selling games.
4)The U.S. Supreme Court said that that violated free speech.

Now, they might have a point if this sort of rating system had never existed in anything else. But we all know that you can’t go into an R rated movie if you’re underage. I’m not sure if those standards are applied to DVD sales and rentals — I’m now far, far too old to be asked how old I am when buying these things — but I’d be amazed if there wasn’t a jurisdiction somewhere that imposed it. So while the video game producers liked to claim that they were just being treated like everyone else, they actually aren’t really being treated like movies. So this has been done in the past, and even is done for DVDs and video games that are considered to be “adult” for containing sex instead of violence. So, how is this sort of restriction suddenly against free speech?

The problem is that free speech has never guaranteed that there won’t be any restrictions on your audience. A play or film or act that’s likely to be too explicit will have an age restriction slapped on its audience. For the most part, it’s mostly done for sexual content, but the video game ratings include that. And the ratings themselves are pretty close to movie ratings and, at least in theatres, that is tightly restricted. You can indeed restrict who the audience for free speech is.

Unfortunately, to oppose the law video game producers pretty much had to appeal to something like the right to free speech to be taken seriously. So, then, we can ask: should they have opposed this law?

The big issue to me is that it seems that this law provides exactly what the voluntary ratings were supposed to provide: choice for parents to ensure that their children aren’t playing games that they don’t think they should be playing. Without this law, parents don’t get to choose if their children play these games because their children can go and buy it themselves. Presuming that the law didn’t restrict parents from buying these games for their underage children, with the law if a child under the recommended age wants to play the game they have to get their parents — or someone else who is over the recommended age — to buy it for them. This means that if little Johnny wants to get the latest Grand Theft Auto, he’s got to go to his parents and convince them that it’s okay for him to play the game. And that’s really what we want: parents getting involved in the decisions of what games little Johnny should be playing.

The video game industry would indeed lose some sales if this law went into force. But it would only lose sales from children who are below their recommended age who can’t convince their parents to buy the game for them anyway. And if the video game industry is going to recommend an age range for a game, it just doesn’t seem right for them to be worried about losing sales from people outside of that range. That just seems mercenary, somehow.

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