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GAMES

Video games now have the same U.S. protection as books and films

by Brian Ashcraft

Video games feature violence. Not all of them, of course, but violence is prevalent — just as it is in movies and on television. Now, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 27, violent video games are protected under the same freedom of speech that Hollywood enjoys.

The State of California vs. The Entertainment Merchants Association and the Entertainment Software Association concerned a 2005 California law that prohibited the sale of violent video games to minors and would fine retailers $1,000 for each game sold to underage players.

The law, written by state Sen. Leland Yee, simply used the broad term “violent video games” without specific clarification. But critics of the California legislation wondered, what exactly is a “violent video game”? Is the first-person shooter “Call of Duty” violent? Is the jumping on top of enemies in “Super Mario Bros.” violent?

According to Yee and other proponents of the law, violent video games desensitize children to violence, thus making them more violent. Ironically, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made millions appearing in violent movies, was a staunch supporter of the legislation. It’s impossible to imagine Schwarzenegger supporting similar legislation for movies.

The law lumped video games into the category of obscene content, such as pornography, the selling of which to minors is punishable by fines. Movies are rated, but movie theaters are not fined $1,000 every time a minor buys a ticket for an R-rated flick. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings are guidelines and are not enforceable by state or federal law. Movie theaters choose to abide by these ratings and enforce them. Equating video games with hardcore pornography is what this legal fight has been about.

In the United States (and Japan as well), there are industry-created ratings groups. America has the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), created in 1994 after games like “Mortal Kombat” and “Doom” incited controversy for violence. The ESRB ratings are displayed on the game’s packaging and include Early Childhood (EC), Everyone (E), Everyone +10 (E+10), Teen (T), Mature 17+ (M), and Adults Only (AO). Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft will not allow games with the dreaded AO rating to be approved for sale on their consoles, meaning that AO-rated games are either toned down for an M rating or are released only on computers — an open platform not controlled by corporate Japan or America.

Japanese non-profit organization Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO) serves a similar function in Japan, rating games as A (All ages), B (12+), C (15+), D (17+) and Z (18+). In Japan, the CERO Z rating doesn’t quite have the same kiss of death that AO does in the U.S., because Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft will permit CERO Z games to be released on their consoles.

However, just because a game has one rating in the U.S. doesn’t mean it will have the same rating in Japan — and vice versa. For example, popular Japanese role-playing game “Persona 4″ was rated B on the CERO scale, but M in the U.S.

One of the biggest differences between the two countries is how they view violence and sexual situations. For example, games such as the Japanese Nintendo DS title “Doki Doki Majo Shinpan,” in which players touch and rub junior high school girls to see if they’re witches, have never even been released in the U.S. And conversely, the “Gears of War” games, in which players shoot and chainsaw monsters, are rated M in America, but in Japan they are CERO Z. The “Gears” games are not huge hits in Japan, largely because they are only released on the Xbox 360, a console that isn’t popular in Japan. The game’s violence is viewed as extreme in Japan, hence its high CERO rating.

In the past, red blood in some games released in Japan has been colored green to tone down violence. Ironic, as one fight scene in the movie “Kill Bill” was changed to black and white in America to tone down violence, while the scene was released in full color in Japan. The interactivity element of games and the fact that they’ve traditionally been marketed to children, and sold in toy stores in Japan, subject them to stricter regulations than movies here.

Video games are no longer strictly made for children, (Square Enix, the Tokyo-based game company known for “Final Fantasy,” even created a new brand last year called “Extreme Edges” that specializes in releasing CERO D- and CERO Z-rated games for older gamers).

This is why there are game ratings, and why parents need to be informed about what their kids are listening to, watching, and of course, playing. It’s a decision that parents should make, not retailers or the game industry. Guidelines help parents become educated about what’s age-appropriate and what isn’t.

In its 7-2 decision on June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the argument that there was legal precedent to regulate violent media for children. Justice Antonin Scalia, father of 9 children and grandfather of 32, pointed to violence in children’s fairytales and in high school required reading, such as “The Odyssey.”

“Reading Dante is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing ‘Mortal Kombat,’ ” wrote Scalia. “But these cultural and intellectual differences are not constitutional.” Scalia also shot down the argument that video games are different from books and movies because they are interactive, pointing out Justice Richard Posner’s opinion that all literature was interactive — the more interactive, the better. Other Justices, who even found video-game violence questionable, pointed out that the California legislation was simply too vague.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling does not directly impact game ratings in Japan. CERO is an independent organization, focused on the domestic market. Japan isn’t as draconian about video-game ratings as, say, Australia or Germany, which routinely ban video games. But if America’s highest court had ruled that video games should not be allotted the same protection given to movies and books, it would have no doubt been something that critics of game violence could have pointed to in an effort to levy stricter control over Japanese gaming.

Every generation has a bogeyman blamed for inciting kids to be violent, whether that be comic books, movies or heavy metal. This generation it is video games, but with this Supreme Court ruling that has changed. Video games are in the same basket as books and movies — and treated as such — legally.

Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com.