Video Games & Virtual Worlds

Yes, we pretty much have. That’s the inescapable conclusion following the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic First Amendment decision in Brown v. EMA back in June, which struck down a California law governing the sale of “violent video games” to minors.  By a 7-2 margin, the court held that video games have First Amendment protections on par with books, film, music and other forms of entertainment.

The folks over at ALEC asked me to explore what happens next and what steps state and local lawmakers can take in a post-Brown world if they wish to address concerns about video game content. My essay appears in the Nov/Dec Inside ALEC newsletter. You can read the entire thing here or via the Scribd embed I have placed down below the fold.

I argue that, going forward, this ruling will force state and local governments to change their approach to regulating all modern media content. Education and awareness-building efforts will be the more fruitful alternative since censorship has now been largely foreclosed. Continue reading →

NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam had a great spot on NPR’s Morning Edition today about the disputes among social scientists over the impact of violent video games on kids. ["It's A Duel: How Do Violent Video Games Affect Kids?"] You won’t be surprised to hear I wholeheartedly agree with Texas A&M psychologist Chris Ferguson, who noted in the spot:

Ferguson says it’s easy to think senseless video game violence can lead to senseless violence in the real world. But he says that’s mixing up two separate things.  “Many of the games do have morally objectionable material and I think that is where a lot of the debate on this issue went off the rails,” he said. “We kind of mistook our moral concerns about some of these video games, which are very valid — I find many of the games to be morally objectionable — and then assumed that what is morally objectionable is harmful.”

I’ve written about Ferguson’s work and these issues more generally many times over through the years here at the TLF. Here are some of the most relevant essays:

In these essays, I’ve tried to make a couple of key points about the social science literature on “media effects” theory: Continue reading →

Yesterday’s 7-2 decision in Brown v. EMA [summaries here from me + Berin Szoka] was one of those historic First Amendment rulings that tends to bring out passions in people. You either loved it or hated it. But it’s sad to see some critics on the losing end of the case declaring that only greed could have possibly motivated the Court’s decision.

For example, California Senator Leland Yee, the author of the law that the Supreme Court struck down yesterday, obviously wasn’t happy about the outcome of the case. Neither was James Steyer, CEO of the advocacy group Common Sense Media, who has been a vociferous advocate of the California law and measures like it. What they had to say in response to the decision, however, was outlandish and juvenile. In essence, they both claimed that the Supreme Court only struck down the law to make video game developers and retailers happy.

“Unfortunately, the majority of the Supreme Court once again put the interests of corporate America before the interests of our children,” Leland Yee said in a post on his website yesterday. “As a result of their decision, Wal-Mart and the video game industry will continue to make billions of dollars at the expense of our kids’ mental health and the safety of our community. It is simply wrong that the video game industry can be allowed to put their profit margins over the rights of parents and the well-being of children.” Jim Steyer reached a similar conclusion: “Today’s decision is a disappointing one for parents, educators, and all who care about kids,” he said. “Today, the multi-billion dollar video game industry is celebrating the fact that their profits have been protected, but we will continue to fight for the best interests of kids and families.”

Mr. Yee and Mr. Steyer seem to be under the impression that the Court and supporters of its ruling in Brown cannot possibly care about children and that something sinister motivates our passion about the victory. Apparently we’re all just apparently in it to make video game industry fat cats and retailing giants happy! That’s a truly insulting position for Mr. Yee and Mr. Steyer to adopt. Perhaps it is just because they are sore about the outcome in the case that are adopting such rhetorical tactics. Regardless, I think they do themselves, their constituencies, and the public a great injustice by suggesting that only greed could possibly be motivating the outcome in this case. Continue reading →

Adam Thierer has already provided an excellent overview of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, striking down a California law requiring age verification and parental consent for the purchase of “violent” videogames by minors. It’s worth calling attention to two key aspects of the decision.

First, the Supreme Court has clearly affirmed that the First Amendment applies equally to all media, including videogames and other interactive media. The Court has, in the past, often accorded lesser treatment to new media, as Cato’s excellent amicus brief explains [pp 3-15]. This approach, if applied consistently by the Court in the future, will ensure that free speech continues to be protected even as technology evolves in ways scarcely imaginable today.

Second, the Court correctly rejected California’s attempt to justify governmental paternalism as a supplement for parental responsibility [Brown at 15-17]. The existing content rating system and parental controls in videogame consoles already empower parents to make decisions about which games are appropriate for their children and their values. As in the Sorrell decision handed down last week, the Court has rejected what amounts to an opt-in mandate—this time, in favor of letting parents “opt-out” of letting their kids play certain games or rating levels rather than requiring that they “opt-in” to each purchase. This is the recurring debate about media consumption—from concerns over violent or offensive speech to those surrounding privacy. And once again, speech regulation must yield to the less-restrictive alternatives of empowerment and education.

Both these points were at the heart of the amicus brief I filed with the Supreme Court in this case last fall (press release), along with Adam (my former Progress & Freedom Foundation colleague) and Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff Attorney Lee Tien and Legal Director Cindy Cohn. Here’s the summary of our argument in that brief, which provides as concise an overview of our reasoning as we could manage, broken down into separate bullets with quotations referencing the Court’s decision on that point. As you’ll see, the Court’s decision reflected all our arguments except for one, which the Court’s decision did not reach. Continue reading →

The Supreme Court wasn’t playing games with the First Amendment today. With its 7-2 decision in Brown v. EMA, the Court has protected video game creators and players from unconstitutional restrictions on what we can produce and play.

Today’s decision ensures that video games have First Amendment protection on par with books, film, music and other forms of entertainment and will help block other regulatory efforts that are justified by blindly alluding to the rationale that “it’s for the children.” The decision fits nicely alongside an impressive and growing string of recent First Amendment cases from the Court that significantly raise the bar against legislative efforts to regulate freedom of speech and expression.

Quick background: In May 2010, the Supreme Court announced that it would review a California law regulating the sale of violently-themed video games to minors. The case was Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, but the name of the case changed to after Jerry Brown became governor of California.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had struck down a California law which prohibited the sale or rental of “violent video games” to minors, but California appealed and the SCOTUS took up the issue.  [Note: When we were still with the Progress & Freedom Foundation, Berin Szoka and I filed a big amicus brief with the Court in the case along with some folks at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.]  By a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court backed the Ninth Circuit and overturned the California law. Justice Scalia wrote for the majority. Justices Thomas and Breyer dissented.

The crucial holdings in the decision are as follows: Continue reading →

The Supreme Court will be issuing its opinion in the case Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association any day now (TLF’s previous coverage is here). The case was previously known as Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, but Mr. Schwarzenegger has been trying to stay out of court of late. I was just sent a draft of the statement that the Eagle Forum Education & Legal Defense Fund, which filed an amicus brief in the case, is planning to release if the decision goes its way. The Eagle Forum Education & Legal Defense Fund was founded by Phyllis Schlafly.

[Not really. This is a joke (but the quotes are true).]
Continue reading →

Five years ago this month, I penned a white paper on “Fact and Fiction in the Debate over Video Game Regulation” that I have been meaning to update ever since but just never seem to get around to it. One of the myths I aimed to debunk in the paper was the belief that most video games contain intense depictions of violence or sexuality.  This argument drives many of the crusades to regulate video games. In my old study, I aggregated several years worth of data about video game ratings and showed that the exact opposite was the case: the majority of games sold each year were rating “E” for everyone or “E10+” (Everyone 10 and over) by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).

Thanks to this new article by Ars Technica‘s Ben Kuchera, we know that this trend continues. Kuchera reports that out of 1,638 games rated by the ESRB in 2010, only 5% were rated “M” for Mature. As a percentage of top sellers, the percentage of “M”-rated games is a bit higher, coming in at 29%. But that’s hardly surprising since there are always a few big “M”-rated titles that are the power-sellers among young adults each year.  Still, most of the best sellers don’t contain extreme violence or sexuality.

Continue reading →

Hosted by SMU’s Guildhall video game law graduate program, the Game::Business::Law summit is the leading conference in the field. Follow the discussion on the #GBL2011 hashtag. Here’s the make-up of my privacy panel:


Professor Xuan-Thao Nguyen, SMU Dedman School of Law

Jennifer Archie, Partner, Latham & Watkins LLP

Andrew S. Ehmke, Partner, Haynes and Boone, LLP

Dr. Joshua Fairfield, Washington & Lee School of Law

Berin Szoka, Founder, TechFreedom

This is an all-star cast. Prof. Nguyen is a big name in video game law field; I had the privilege to work with Jennifer Archie on Internet law when I practiced at Latham; and Josh Fairfield is one of the few law professors I find myself in perfect philosophical harmony with. Check out this summary of his excellent 2009 paper Virtual Parentalism. I only met Andy last night at the reception, but he’s a solid thinker on the law of gaming. As they say on postcards: Wish you were here!

CLU seeks systemic perfection in Tron: Legacy

Note: The following post contains spoilers pertaining to the plot and theme of the film Tron: Legacy.

Near the end of Tron: Legacy, the character CLU (short for Codified Likeness Utility), on the verge of releasing his army of re-purposed computer programs into the brick-and-mortar world to destroy humanity, confronts Kevin Flynn, his creator-turned-nemesis, with a plaintiff, “I did everything you asked.”  Flynn, older and wiser than the character we met in 1982’s Tron, and his techno-idealism tempered by the realization that to save humanity he must destroy both his physical and virtual self, wistfully answers, “I know.”

It’s a rather poignant scene that punctuates the film’s unique take on technology and humanity. Traditionally in the movies, when technology turns evil, it does so with a will of its own. The Matrix and Terminator films are just two examples. Tron: Legacy, however, upends the idea. CLU, sure enough, turns on his human creator, but not out of rebellion, but to carry out his human-engineered programming.

You see, Flynn programmed CLU to create the “perfect system.” In the film, Flynn explains that, as a younger man he thought he could design a technology-based solution that would end war, illness, poverty and hunger and, in a nutshell, make humanity better. But when the Grid—the computer environment Flynn nurtured—actually does something spontaneously, spawning a new life form, so-called isomorphic programs (called isos for short), CLU destroys them. While this act of cybernetic genocide horrifies Flynn, from CLU’s perspective, it was nothing but a logical response. The isos, as free and independent entities that did not respond to his command and control, introduced an element of randomness and uncertainty into the Grid that CLU could not abide. They were an obstacle to the systemic perfection he was programmed to create and therefore had to be eliminated.

Continue reading →

I’m still digesting the transcript from Tuesday’s Supreme Court oral arguments in the important First Amendment video game case, Schwarzenegger v. EMA. [Full transcript is here.]  I thought I would post just a couple of quick thoughts here. [Reminder: here is the amicus brief that Berin Szoka and I filed in the case, and here is some analysis of the case by Larry Downes.]

On Defining “Deviant Violence”

Much of the discussion during oral arguments was preoccupied with defining the contours of the term “deviant violence.”  I was pleased to see the Justices asking some sharp questions about the interpretation of that term for regulatory purposes. In particular, I enjoyed Justice Scalia’s remarks and questions to California Deputy Attorney General Zackery Morazzini, who argued the case on behalf of the state. Scalia said:

I am not just concerned with the vagueness. I am concerned with the vagueness, but I am concerned with the First Amendment, which says Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. And it was always understood that the freedom of speech did not include obscenity. It has never been understood that the freedom of speech did not include portrayals of violence. You are asking us to create…  a whole new prohibition which the American people never — never ratified when they ratified the First Amendment.  They knew they were — you know, obscenity was — was bad, but — what’s next after violence? Drinking? Smoking? Movies that show smoking can’t be shown to children? Does — will that affect them? Of course, I suppose it will.  But is — is that — are — are we to sit day by day to decide what else will be made an exception from the First Amendment? Why — why is this particular exception okay, but the other ones that I just suggested are not okay? (p. 15-16)

Indeed, that’s what is at stake in this case: The beginning of a new class of exceptions to the First Amendment based upon concerns about children’s exposure to depictions of “excessive” or “deviant” violence.”  Once you open up this can of worms, the sky is likely the limit in terms of how far governments might go to regulate speech in the name of “protecting children.” Continue reading →