The same day California chooses its next governor, the nine justices of the nation's highest court will hear arguments on a pet Arnold Schwarzenegger project: a 2005 California law that prohibits selling or renting violent games to minors.
The law defines violence in videogames as “killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.” Violations come with a maximum $1,000 fine against any offending retailer.
The $13-billion-a-year industry that brought us of “God of War,” “Manhunt” and “Resident Evil” fears the California law would be the first significant move to restrict its content.
Gov. Schwarzenegger enthusiastically signed the ban into law, after passage by the California Assembly and support from advocacy groups like Common Sense Media. The former and perhaps future action hero cited research that claims violent videogames stimulate "feelings of aggression," reduce "activity in the frontal lobes of the brain" and promote "violent antisocial or aggressive behavior" in minors.
Almost immediately, industry groups such as the Entertainment Software Association and the Video Software Dealers Association challenged it in the courts.
Last year, the 9th Circuit in San Francisco hit the "Off" button on the law, which has never actually taken effect because lower courts in 2005 and 2007 said it violated free-expression rights. The 9th Circuit’s decision was primarily based on the belief that the Golden State hadn't provided any credible research or evidence.
At that point, you'd think Game Over, right?
Well, no. Lame duck Gov. Schwarzenegger appealed that decision all the way to the Supreme Court. "Whatever First Amendment value these games may possess for adults,” California lawyers said in the brief, “such games are simply not worthy of constitutional protection when sold to minors without parental participation.”
It was unexpected that Schwarzenegger was given his day on the bench — the Supreme Court has for years declined to intervene as restrictions on videogames passed through various state legislatures and fallen in various lower courts.
For its part, the videogame industry says its rating system — which it claims is more rigorous than movie ratings — does a good job of keeping inappropriate content out of young hands. It argues that parents, not state legislatures, should take an active role in what children play.
And a number of studies, like one released Monday by the Massachusetts General Hospital's Center for Mental Health and Media in Boston, claim that videogames provide long-term educational, social, intellectual and psychotical benefits to kids – especially in terms of problem solving and developing strategic and spatial skills.
Of course, by the nature of information distribution in today’s digital age, whatever decision the Supreme Court comes to could be redundant.
For one thing, California’s next fovernor — be it Meg Whitman or Jerry Brown — could repeal the law or add amendments to it. For another, the law in its present form is unclear on how its prohibitions apply to online sales.
An in today's entertainment landscape, no matter what restrictions are place, few kids are going to find it hard to play "Dead Space 2" or one of the "Grand Theft Auto" games if they want to – either from an older sibling, a closed network or a peer-to-peer downloading site.
The Supreme Court’s decision will likely be announced. along with a slew of other cases, next summer when the justices go on their annual recess.