Think the first-person shooter game that sets players off on murderous rampages is too violent for a 10-year-old? It's up to parents – not the state – to make that decision, the highest court in the United States has decided.
In a 7-2 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said a California law banning the sale or rental of violent video games to minors is unconstitutional because it violates the right to free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment.
California legislators passed the law in 2005 (though it yet to come into effect) to protect children from graphic violence in games such as the bestselling Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which they argued could lead to aggressive behaviour.
But the court ruled video games are no different than books, plays or movies, all of which are constitutionally protected.
"California's argument would fare better if there were a long-standing tradition in this country of specially restricting children's access to depictions of violence, but there is none. Certainly the books we give children to read – or read to them when they are younger – contain no shortage of gore," Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the court's ruling.
The decision was a victory for the gaming industry, which generated sales of $25-billion in the U.S. last year, according to the NPD Group.
"The parents have to decide those things, not some random government Star Chamber somewhere," said Rich Taylor, vice-president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Entertainment Software Association, the industry group that challenged California's law.
Many protective measures are already in place, Mr. Taylor argues. Publishers list industry ratings on packages and, if a game is rated M for Mature, a consumer must produce identification to purchase it. Even if children successfully purchase these games, parents can set controls on consoles that restrict access to them.
Vendors have a solid track record of keeping "mature" content from minors. A Federal Trade Commission survey from April found video game retailers had the highest rates of compliance when it came to enforcing ratings. Without a parent, 13 per cent of under-aged "secret shoppers" were able to purchase an M-rated game, whereas 33 per cent were able to purchase a ticket to an R-rated film.
But opponents says enforcement is lacking.
"We see many examples where those industry ratings are ignored at the storefront purchase and kids are able to buy those games even though the industry's rating says it's not appropriate for a 14-year-old," says Alan Simpson, the vice-president of policy for San Francisco-based family advocacy group Common Sense Media.
The California law was passed largely based on evidence from doctors that linked children's exposure to violent video games with violent behaviour. The Supreme Court rejected those findings. Judge Scalia wrote they merely showed a correlation between games and aggression, not causation.
Aside from the studies, opponents of the shoot 'em up video games point to several high-profile cases of teens obsessed with gaming committing acts of extreme violence.
After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in 1999, many were quick to point out the teens were fans of the first-person shooter game Doom.
The Grand Theft Auto series has been linked in court with several real-life acts of violence, including the killing of Aaron Hamel, a motorist gunned down by two teenagers in Tennessee in 2005 who frequently played Grand Theft Auto III.