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The Globe and Mail

Video games communicate ideas: U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has ruled that the government can't restrict the sale of violent video games to minors because the medium falls under the protection of the First Amendment, which, among other things, restricts the creation of laws that impede free speech.

The verdict strikes down a law drafted in California in 2005 under Governor Schwarzenegger's tenure that was to give the state the power to fine merchants for selling games that contain any violence toward human characters to customers under the age of 18. It was never enforced. Several other states have attempted to create similar laws, never with success.

However, now that the highest court in the land has had its say-which, by the way, falls in line with rulings issued by lower courts in the past-this could be the final word on the subject in the U.S. -or at least until another politician attempts to curry favour with conservative parents who fear and fail to understand the medium.

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Beyond its legal ramifications, the ruling does something else: It states clearly that video games as capable of communicating ideas. As with any other artistic medium, games may contain violence, sexuality, and other forms of mature content, but potential exists for significant meaning to be found in any or all of it. And that's not something the government can or should attempt to regulate.

Here is the first spot in the Supreme Court's 92-page decision that specifically addresses the medium's ability to convey messages and ideas:

"Video games qualify for First Amendment protection. Like protected books, plays, and movies, they communicate ideas through familiar literary devices and features distinctive to the medium. And "the basic principles of freedom of speech . . . do not vary" with a new and different communication medium."

Similarly, the following extract shows that the Supreme Court clearly places games in the company of other forms of media (and provides a chuckle-worthy comparison that proves the justices aren't without a sense of humour):

"Reading Dante is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing Mortal Kombat. But these cultural and intellectual differences are not constitutional ones. Crudely violent video games, tawdry TV shows, and cheap novels and magazines are no less forms of speech than The Divine Comedy, and restrictions upon them must survive strict scrutiny."

And perhaps the most important insight in the ruling:

"Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas-and even social messages-through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player's interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection. Under our Constitution, "esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature...are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.""

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So there you have it, straight from the Supreme Court: Games can communicate ideas and even social messages. People may not always like what they have to say, but, as with any art form, it's up to individuals-in this case, parents-to make up their own minds about the ideas they encounter and decide whether they are appropriate for minors.

The U.S. government should not-and, according to this ruling, will not-play the role of gatekeeper to ideas.

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