This was one of the most important pieces I’ve written in my life. It is an open letter to California State Senator Leland Yee, who was behind Brown v. EMA, a Supreme Court case that would have threatened the First Amendment Rights of game developers everywhere.
To the Honorable Leland Yee and the Supreme Court of the United States
My name is Kevin Wong, an independent high-school student blogger and gaming enthusiast from the Sunset. It has come to my attention that California Assembly Bills 1792 and 1793 will be challenged in a November 2 Supreme Court trial Schwarzenegger v. EMA. A gamer since four, I was deeply perturbed by news of this possible threat to not only the First Amendment rights of game developers, but also to video games as an artistic and entertainment medium. Should the Supreme Court side with California, any video game depicting violent action between human characters would be cordoned off in a separate area of a store and bear a large warning label, essentially placing games on the same level with pornography and cigarettes. As a longtime video-game consumer, writer and aspiring developer, I cannot allow this to happen for the following reasons.
- Passing laws calling for the special treatment of video-games as a medium essentially makes them taboo. By treating them similarly to pornography and cigarettes, future consumers could begin to treat them similarly. By making gaming a taboo hobby, gaming may become socially frowned upon.
- The state lacks substantial proof towards the conviction that virtual depiction of violence causes real-world violence. A Texas A&M study concluded that there was no explicit link between violent game consumption and school shootings. (1)
- By restricting sales of violent games, video game sales will ultimately dip. Developers and publishers must alter the content of their games in order to comply with sales restrictions and remain profitable. This ultimately lends the government indirect control of the content of all video games everywhere.
- The case is ultimately disrespectful to games as an artistic medium by labeling them as a societal threat and a negative influence.
- Even if the Court sides with California, young people will always actively seek out ways to circumvent the system through piracy, online stores or simply borrowing from peers.
- In essence, video games are a conglomerate of other forms of constitutionally protected media. Music, narrative, digital visual art and voice-over are ubiquitous in modern games.
In the past few decades, video games have grown exponentially with changes in technology, design, commercial viability, perception and development. Understanding that games like Postal are unrepresentative of the gaming industry as a whole, video-games hold many redeeming values and maintain legitimacy as a form of First Amendment protected media. Notably violent games such as Bioshock and the maligned Grand Theft Auto should not be taken by their first-impression. These games convey traditional narratives of utopia and crime through the distinctions that their medium affords. The indie and alternative game circuit is very well known for their advancements in video game narrative and art-gaming through works such as Braid, World of Goo, Machinarium and Limbo, all of which convey narratives that cannot be replicated through any other medium.
While media pundits such as Jack Thompson may deride games theatrically, their arguments convey a distinct lack of understanding of the nuances of the medium. For one, their conviction that violence is the primary draw to video games is wholly flawed. Should this be true, than notably violent games such as Postal, MadWorld and Rapelay would not have been commercial failures. Gamers are attracted to refined games exhibiting mastery of mechanics and dynamics, evoking the desired aesthetics. Hence, the success of the Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty games is not attributed to their graphic depiction of violence, which is mild in comparison to other games, but their refined marketing and design.
Ph.D student Vanessa Gorely said, “Video games are extremely prevalent in our culture, but they haven’t been paid much attention as a cultural phenomenon. Most attention has been paid to the negative aspects of gaming and not the good aspects of it (2)”. Given the highly negative attention that the media gives games, the is a significant group of people who hold condescending views towards gaming, acknowledging them as either a waste of time or a societal threat (3). However, recent intellectual approaches to gaming have been made by the modern intelligentsia, thereby proving wrong the notion that gaming is a waste of time. For one, Wabash College in Indiana has as part of its required material for incoming freshman, Valve’s 2007 puzzle game Portal. Portal, frequently compared to Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, was chosen for its use of NPC characters that intend to deceive the player while subtly hinting at their true intentions, thereby addressing “fundamental questions of humanity” (4). Another school with gaming programs is The University of Calgary, which has recently laid out plans for the addition of video games to its research library (5). Like film and comics before it, courts are impugning the societal relevance of video games. Given the recent advances of intellectual circles into gaming, as well as indie gaming circles into intellectualism, I wholeheartedly support the EMA in the upcoming case. Thus, I sincerely implore you, Mr. Lee, Governor Schwarzenegger, California and the Supreme Court to develop a deeper understanding of the nuances and distinctions of the video game medium and afford them the artistic respect and the First Amendment protection that they deserve.
Kevin Wong and the Ensigned (We collected over 70 signatures in two days! Thank you!)