On Election Day, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Schwarzenegger vs. Entertainment Merchants Association. The irony of this case name was obvious: the celebrated violent-action-hero governor of California had signed a bill into law in 2005 forbidding the sale of ultraviolent video games to minors, a law that lower federal courts prevented from ever going into effect.
Why should the Supremes care about this? After all, a year before that, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed a law making it illegal for anyone under 14 years old to tan indoors under any circumstances. (Children from 14 to 18 can tan - with parental consent.) The fine for salon operators for each violation is as much as $2,500 per day. Somehow this did not become a cause celebre, and was not fought all the way to the Supreme Court. Indeed, 32 states are inhibiting the freedom of minors to tan, and no one cares.
But interfere with their right to fry their minds and there's hell to pay. Video-game manufacturers don't want politicians tampering with their sales to minors, so here comes the march of the First Amendment fundamentalists, who argue that the principle of freedom of speech covers the enthusiastic distribution and sale of every kind of child-corrupting media horror. For them there must be no helpful hurdle or brake for children to go around their parents and grab what Justice Samuel Alito called "the most violent, sadistic, graphic video game that can be developed."
Paul Smith, a lawyer for the game manufacturers, argued that when they wrote the Bill of Rights, our founding fathers essentially guaranteed that a ten-year-old boy can acquire a game with graphic beheadings and disembowelments. "The existing solutions are perfectly capable of allowing this problem to be addressed," Mr. Smith says, "assuming it is a problem."
Assuming it's a problem? Does Mr. Smith have children? Is he one of those parents who believes grade-schoolers should not only watch an incessant parade of graphic violence, but participate in it, interactively? You don't have to believe that every video-game player will act out his virtual violence in the real world to know it certainly will have noticeable anti-social effects on young children.
Requiring the parent to buy these games is hardly shredding the Constitution.
Smith's suggested hurdles for child purchases were the industry's own ratings, blocking technologies, the cost of the games, and the difficulty of playing them at home in secret. Cheers for Justice Samuel Alito, who wasn't buying any of this foolishness.
"And you say there is no problem because 16-year-olds in California never have $50 available to go buy a video game, and because they never have TVs in their room and their parents are always home watching what they with their video games," Alito asserted incredulously. "And the video games have features that allow parents to block the playing of violent video games, which can't be overcome by a computer-savvy California 16-year-old. That's why there is no problem, right?"
Smith also tried to argue that children's literature has traditionally involved graphically violent themes. Justice John Roberts, who has young children, shot back: "We do not have a tradition in this country of telling children they should watch people actively hitting schoolgirls over the head with a shovel so they'll beg with mercy, being merciless and decapitating them, shooting people in the leg so they fall down." Roberts was reading from a description of "Postal 2," a 2002 game often cited as ultraviolent. "We protect children from that. We don't actively expose them to that."
Let's hope the justices take the time to watch the promotional videos for "God of War 3." It isn't exactly "Little Red Riding Hood." Made by sick minds at Sony for the PlayStation 3, it's been promoted on YouTube in a clip showing how the protagonist Kratos (the main interactive character) graphically, slowly, realistically tears the head off Helios, the sun god. Sony obviously believes this is an awesome virtual feat for any twelve-year-old.
Sadly, you just can't talk to some people about the psychological impact of scenes like this. Justice Sonia Sotomayor compared the effects of this violence to the violence in Bugs Bunny cartoons, which is beyond ridiculous.
Justice Elena Kagan tried to dismiss the whole content controversy by insisting that "Mortal Kombat" was "an iconic game, which I am sure half of the clerks who work for us spent considerable amounts of time in their adolescence playing." The message: the kids will be all right. But "Mortal Kombat" was only "iconic" in that it was a gory first when it debuted in 1992, with game play like decapitations, electrocution, and ripping out the still-beating heart of an opponent with bare hands.
It makes you wonder how those Justices would feel if the game title was "Supreme Court Massacre."