Blog Post

Government Regulation is Not Always Necessary; Just Ask the Video Game Industry

           It is no secret that the decision in the United States Supreme Court case known as Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association was a landmark legal victory for the video game industry in the United States. In this case, a 7-2 majority of justices voted to grant video games the first amendment right of unrestricted speech, thereby freeing the gaming industry of governmental regulation of sales. The California law in question, proposed by state Senator Leland Yee, took aim at violent video games under the premise that violent video games have a positive correlation with real world aggressiveness and violence, thus making them harmful to the development of young gamers. Despite receiving some criticism from anti-violence groups and parents across the country, the decision of the Supreme Court to invalidate the proposed California law was the correct decision. The numerous flaws of the law in question, including uncertainty regarding the correlation between violent video games and real world violence, as well as the success of the Voluntary ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) ratings and regulations, show that government regulation of the sale of violent video game is currently unnecessary.

            Although the California law in question was technically ruled unconstitutional because of a violation of the first amendment rights of game developers, the majority decision of the court shows that the ruling was arrived at largely due to a lack of consensus among researchers about whether violent video games actually have a negative effect on the children that the law was attempting to protect. In the court’s majority decision, Justice Antonin Scalia makes light of this uncertainty by claiming that there is not enough reliable research showing a correlation for the court to rule in favor of regulations.[1] In light of this, the Supreme Court made the correct decision to overturn the law because the information that they were given regarding research on the topic gave it little reason to believe in a definite relationship between video game violence and real violence, which means that the law would have been operating on an unproven theory. Prominent researchers, such as Christopher Ferguson of Texas A&M and Craig Anderson of Iowa State University, are examples of researchers with startlingly different opinions on the topic that led to the court’s uncertainty. Ferguson’s numerous social studies show no negative effects on subjects who play violent video games, instead attributing any aggressive behavior to family issues and violent predispositions, which contrasts Anderson’s work that shows a direct causal relationship between video games and real world violence in behavioral lab tests.[2] [3]As if the opposing research conclusions did not cast enough uncertainty on the subject, current FBI statistics show a massive decrease in violent crime over the past 20 years, which seems to contradict the theory that the distribution of violent video games and media is making people more violent than ever.[4] In order for governments to avoid overreaching in its policy toward the videogame industry as California did with Leland Yee’s overturned law, it is clear that more research must be performed so that lawmakers can know definitively whether any intervention is actually necessary to mitigate any negative effects of violent video games.  

            Despite the Supreme Court's correct decision based on the uncertainty of video game research, the decision to invalidate the proposed law was also an act of common sense, given the success of the ESRB regulations in rendering any regulatory law unnecessary. Yee’s proposed California law would have banned the sale of violent video games to minors, in the hopes that a ban on the sale of these games to minors would decrease overall use of these games that have been suggested to be harmful to youth. However, it is not as if minors can currently go to their local game retailer without their parents and purchase violent video games, as critics have suggested. The ESRB, which rates all video games according to their content, has agreements with every major game retailer in the United States to restrict the sale of mature (M) rated games to buyers over the age of seventeen years old, which is the minimum recommended age for violent games with this rating. Although these agreements with retailers are voluntary, a recent study involving underage “mystery shoppers” showed that over eighty percent were denied the sale of a mature rated game without proper identification or a guardian present.[5] The court’s majority decision also agreed that the ESRB was doing an excellent job at the same task that the proposed law aimed to achieve, adding that the video game industry already has the most restricted market for mature material, outpacing both movies and music.[6] Because of the widespread adoption and success of the ESRB regulations, any governmental regulation of video game sales would likely not restrict sales any more than they already are restricted, thus making the law a waste of the government’s time, money, and effort.

            Despite the good intentions of protecting America’s youth, the main downfall of this recently invalidated California law is its impracticality. The law strove to solve an issue that has not even been definitely proven to exist, but it also attempted to solve this uncertain problem through methods that are already being used effectively by nongovernmental groups. As a result, the Supreme Court ruled convincingly and correctly in one of the biggest court cases in the history of the video game industry.




[1]Scalia, A. (2011). The Majority Decision of the United States Supreme Court: Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assn.


[2]Ferguson, C. (2008). Video Games and Agression: Causal Relationship, or byproduct of family violence and intrinsic motivation?


[3]Anderson, C.A. (2000). Violent Video Games Increase in Aggression in Violence.

[6]Scalia, A. (2011). The Majority Decision of the United States Supreme Court: Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assn.


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