updated 10:40 am EDT, Mon June 27, 2011
Supreme Court says games backed by 1st Amendment
The US Supreme Court determined in a ruling (below) that video games were protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. It struck down a California law that banned renting or selling games to those under 18. Judge Scalia and four supporting judges determined that games, like books, movies, and plays, get a message across through "fammiliar literary devices" and can't be censored solely because it contained violence.
"The most basic principle -- that government lacks the power to restrict expression because of its message, ideas, subject matter, or content... is subject to a few limited exceptions for historically unprotected speech, such as obscenity, incitement, and fighting words," the ruling says. "But a legislature cannot create new categories of unprotected speech simply by weighing the value of a particular category against its social costs and then punishing it if it fails the test."
Since the US didn't stop kids from seeing violence in movies or other formats, the state's argument that gaming was somehow different was "unpersuasive," according to the court. California's proposed law was not targeting a broad interest but instead appearing to punish a particular format. The ESRB rating system also accomplished much of what the law has been trying to enforce and was more specific; the law would ban sales even when the parents have no problems with violent games.
The ruling sets a major precedent for games of all kinds in the US that more officially puts them on the same level as art in legal disputes. No state government can now try to ban games that otherwise don't run afoul of the law. Apple, Google, and others who run online game stores may feel the consequences the most since they faced the risk of having to block sales of certain games in the App Store, Android Market, and similar stores just for those identified as coming from California.