A Challenge to Freedom • Page 2

A European perspective on the Californian violent games bill. (Hi Ted!)

The pivotal legal point in the Supreme Court's judgement will probably be whether California's proposed law violates the first amendment of the US constitution, so the industry's rhetoric - Price's included - is now focused on dangling the spectre of government censorship in front of the eyes of the public, and on pointing out that no other forms of media face this kind of control (although it's worth noting that cinemas in particular have tightened up their enforcement of age restrictions in recent years).

These are reasonable arguments, of course, but Price only mentions in passing the real elephant in the room. Sitting right in the middle of the shattered wreckage of the conference table trumpeting loudly is Wal-Mart, the largest retail chain in the United States - and perhaps one of the most conservative. The fear among publishers is that if California's law, or other laws like it, were to pass, Wal-Mart wouldn't institute age checks. Instead, it would just stop stocking M-rated games entirely.

It's not an unjustified fear. There is, after all, another age rating in the United States - the extremely rarely used AO, or Adults Only, rating. Wal-Mart doesn't carry AO games, and the limited number of retailers which do carry such titles keep them squirrelled away in a separate area of the store from the rest of the game titles. As a result, selling an AO game in any numbers is a challenging proposition - which of course means that not very many AO games get made.

As Price suggests in his blog, California's laws could have a similar chilling effect on M-rated games. The end result could be, quite simply, to kill off the market for M-rated boxed games entirely. This is the "censorship" to which Price refers - not strictly speaking government censorship, but rather an economic censorship forced upon the industry by one of the world's biggest retail players.

That's a frightening and unpleasant prospect, and gamers are right to get behind efforts to prevent it from happening. Yet it's not the only facet of this issue. Many parents - many of them gamers themselves - will understand and support the desire to place control of the media their children access back into parental hands.

It's one thing for a parent to make a decision that their child is mature enough to handle an M-rated game, and entirely another for a child to be able to buy an M-rated game without parental involvement. That's a contrast which is recognised in most European nations right now, but which is only subject to a voluntary code in the USA. That may sound like a small difference, but it's a cultural gulf which can make this argument pretty difficult to comprehend for those of us back on the old continent.

One thing is certain - the real bogeyman in the entire debate is not the games business, nor is it concerned parents. It's not Governor Schwarzenegger (whose hypocrisy in signing a bill clamping down on the kind of violent media which made him famous has been noted far and wide). It's not even, though I say it through gritted teeth, the conservative Christian pressure groups who campaign against mature media. The villain of the piece is Wal-Mart and the other retail chains which would follow its lead. Their involvement threatens to turn what could (with a little work) be a sensible, moderate piece of legislation into sweeping, hugely damaging censorship.

That's what this debate is really about. Before the games business can be free from the danger of censorship, it must first be free from the chilling effect of being in economic thrall to retail chains who will always put the desires of conservative America ahead of any high-minded concepts of freedom. Until that happens, Price is right - if perhaps for the wrong reasons.

For the sake of our dearly loved hobby, for the even more fundamental sake of basic freedom of expression, we should all (even those of us in Europe) cross our fingers and hope the Supreme Court crushes this bill.

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