Videogames Are Protected By the First Amendment, but They Were Always Art!

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Published by Jim Sterling 9 years ago , last updated 1 year ago

(This is another edition of , a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

Yesterday was a big day for many industry spokesmen and pundits, as the Supreme Court officially smacked down the California Videogame Law, a proposed form of legislation by Senator Leland Yee that would make criminals of those who sell “violent” games to minors. One problem with this law is that it undermined the excellent self-regulation that the industry already undertakes (the fact that the ESRB has pissed me off a number of times with its demands is enough proof for me that it is doing its job). Another, more pertinent problem, with the law is that it’s patently unconstitutional, conflicting as it does with the First Amendment. Videogames, like other forms of artistic expression, are not within the realm of governmental control, and proposing that they should be ought to offend all those with a brain.

The SCOTUS decision was excellent, if expected, but the level of celebration has been somewhat … unnecessary. It’s not that people don’t deserve to be happy, it’s that people are celebrating things that have never needed celebrating.

One thing I have a problem with is the near-desperate way in which several industry peers have quoted Justice Antonin Scalia, who proved himself surprisingly savvy in this whole debate. He led the majority 7-2 destruction of the Videogame Law and it is incredibly cheering to see him display intelligent and informed opinions as he eviscerates the flimsy work of Yee and his cohorts. However — and this happens every time somebody who isn’t a gamer supports games — gamers have taken Scalia’s words as validation. Sentiments like, “Videogames are now officially legitimate” and “We’re art now” could be found all over Twitter yesterday, and I feel that if you REALLY want games to be “legitimate”, there’s one thing to do — stop saying it!

Gamers seem to yap like dogs, desperate for approval, whenever a non-gamer shows them attention. Even worse, when an uninformed, irrelevant man like Roger Ebert claims videogames aren’t art, he’s inundated with emails from people begging him to play Braid or BioShock, in the vain hope that he’ll change his mind, ruffle the heads of gamers, and give games the validation that it apparently needs so badly.

The fact is, when Scalia said “all literature is interactive” and placed games on an equal footing with movies and books, our first collective response should not have been celebration. It should have been an overbearing sentiment that we knew it already. Scalia said nothing that we didn’t already know, and while I’m not against feeling smug and laughing at Leland Yee over the ruling, I don’t think we should be saying things like, “WE WON” as if our ability to respect videogames hinged on the opinions of nine strangers in a court hearing. It makes gamers look insecure, and that their support of the industry hinges on the opinions of other people.

Whether Roger Ebert changes his mind or not, and even if Hell froze over and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Videogame Law, it wouldn’t change what videogames are to us. I abandoned the “games are art” debate long ago, because I realized that I don’t care what anybody thinks, least of all the festering shells of men who are close to shuffling off this mortal coil. Art is subjective, and I think games are art. There’s NO room for debate there. If just one person things that a given thing is art, then it is art. It takes supreme levels of arrogance to claim that something is not art, because what you’re doing is telling everybody else how they feel. Art is too personal for an outside source to arbitrarily rule what it can’t be.

That’s why, as much as I love what Scalia said and even quoted his rather excellent comparison between Mortal Kombat and Dante’s Inferno, I can’t feel this sudden optimistic glee that everything’s going to be okay from now on. What happened today was an excellent, positive thing for everybody who believes in freedom of expression and stands against petty little politicians who want to waste tax dollars on unwinnable pet causes, but it’s not “proof” that videogames are legitimate, valid, and art.

The proof of that appeared as soon as you wanted to believe it.

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