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The Lawbringer: Arguing about video games

Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Running parallel to the games we love and enjoy is a world full of rules, regulations, pitfalls and traps. How about you hang out with us as we discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of the games we love to play?

One day, massively multiplayers will be center stage at the Supreme Court of the United States of America. We aren't there yet, but one day. Hell, we just got video games as a genre of entertainment on the lips of the Supreme Court justices. I'll talk about the Supreme Court case Schwarzenegger v. EMA later on, once we've got more to go on than the opening arguments, etc., and give you a rundown in the simplest terms possible about what is being argued over. For now, I'd like to talk about the language of video games being used in the case and get a little ranty about who gets to argue about video games.

Fine. I will give you the super-fast rundown. In 2005, the state of California passed a law that banned the sale of certain violent video games to minors (under the age of 18) and mandated ESRB ratings. The law also imposed a $1,000 fine on anyone found to have violated the law. The Entertainment Merchants Association challenged the law's constitutionality in district court and won. The state of California, through Governor Schwarzenegger, appealed the ruling. In the Ninth Circuit, the ruling of the district court was upheld, and California lost again. Now, for its final appeal, the case is before the highest court in the United States of America. And it's sort of a big deal.

We aren't here to talk about the case just yet, however. I want to talk about the language in which the debate over violent video games is being couched. Have you ever listened to completely out-of-touch people discuss something that you are so incredibly knowledgeable in that there are times when you just want to strangle them because the issues they bring up in whatever field of study they have little to no knowledge of are years behind? It's infuriating listening to the justices, lawyers and pundits talk about things they have no idea about.

Can you believe how esoteric video games still are to a whole subset of the population?

Postal 2?!

Can you believe people are still talking about Postal 2? POSTAL 2. One awful game from 2003. The year 2003 might as well be the prehistoric era for video games at this point, especially at the rate things are moving. Postal 2?! The language of video games has changed so much from 2003 to 2010 that we live in a completely different world. The California law from 2005 had to come into effect two years after Postal 2's mediocrity graced what few screens it did. Mountains, molehills, etc.

The fact that Postal 2 still touches the lips of incredibly smart people practically offends me, not as a scholar but as a gamer. Did anyone even enjoy Postal 2? I'm probably barking up the wrong tree and fighting the wrong fight, but I want the discourse to be framed in more relevant language.

Mortal Kombat jokes are so 1995

Elena Kagan made some Mortal Kombat jokes at the oral argument on Nov. 2. Mortal Kombat. Let that sink in. This whole debate is like arguing about the validity of movies in the 1960s using early Chaplin works with no sound and no color. And that fact that Elena Kagan made a Mortal Kombat joke about her law clerks playing the game, and Antonin Scalia's response of "not knowing anything about this," shows two worlds people still live in when discussing video games.

The first world is that of the embarrassed adult who feels the very knowledge that video games exist and people play them is somehow marked with evil nerd status. These are the people who missed the boat and failed to see that video games stopped being advertised solely to children more than 20 years ago. Scalia represents the curmudgeon who doesn't want to admit that, more than probably, everyone around him is playing video games.

The second world is that of the accepting adult who gets it, somewhat, but isn't enthusiastic enough to move past the precursory information that a 10-minute debriefing would bestow. There is nothing wrong with this -- it's how most information is delivered to people. It is just unfortunate that such important discourse is argued by people who have very narrow viewpoints on the type of content.

We will continue to scream from the sidelines as video games are debated as having serious literary, artistic, political and scientific value. The only way we can combat a general ignorance is through education about what video games really are and explain that they're more than just entertainment. Child's Play has been doing a great job at putting a positive spin on gaming and gaming culture, for instance, as well as every Nintendo DS in the hands of every child born today.

The MMO connection

Here's where MMOs fit in. We've been good about settling real MMO legal troubles outside of court. Blizzard is fighting over scammers, cheaters and EULA stuff, sure, but that's more about contracts and the validity thereof. Second Life even avoided court catastrophe after its huge mess but still had nothing substantial on the books. Rumblings of taxing virtual assets comes up once in awhile, sure, but we're all assuming that, for the time being, it's all just like airline miles.

One day, someone will have to explain massively multiplayer online role playing games to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. One day, the worlds we live and play in are going to be scrutinized just like violent video games are being scrutinized right now in Washington, D.C. We have to be the ones who create the narrative that will one day be used to make crucial decisions about the entertainment we choose to partake in.

So how do we go about creating the narrative of the massively multiplayer? Pop culture. The more MMOs become a positive cultural phenomenon, we will have a much easier time convincing the world that our virtual worlds are more than just entertainment, more than just servers in some complex, and more than just the code that blasts across the fiber. Because, really, do you want World of Warcraft to be compared, in the greatest court in the land, to Postal 2?

This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at mat@wow.com.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, The Lawbringer

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