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Political Speech in Video Games May Be the Argument to Save Free Speech

08/12/2010 03:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

California passed a law that makes it illegal for people under 18 to purchase violent video games. Whether or not this law is Constitutional will soon be decided by the US Supreme Court. This case has been covered on the Huffington Post before, when it was granted cert, the educational value of violent games and when 131 million murders were logged in Red Dead Redemption.

One point that doesn't get discussed enough in this whole debate over whether violent video games are harmful, educational or neutral for youth, is about the political value of video games. As a gamer myself, it seems quite clear this is due to the fact that most people working on this case or commenting on it, simply don't understand what video games are. Not long ago, Roger Ebert said that video games can never be art. 4,500 angry comments later, Ebert apologized and admitted he was a fool for commenting on the artistic value of video games without ever having played one.

Yet, right now lawyers across the country who don't know the first thing about video games are writing their briefs and arguments about whether states can censor video games. In two months nine members of the US Supreme (average age of 64) will be deciding the fate of those arguments and setting down precedent which will affect video games, free speech and censorship for decades to come. One can be sure that however expert these nine justices are in matters of law, they know almost nothing about video games.

One organization, the National Youth Rights Association, is working with the ACLU on an amicus brief for this case and unlike most others involved this, NYRA's staff, NYRA's board and NYRA's members do have familiarity with games and will be affected by this ruling. Because we've actually played a game or two, we were the first (at this point, perhaps the only ones) to point out that video games aren't just mindless orgies of violence, they are often quite political. Even violent games have characters, plots, settings or themes that deal with political issues.

Anyone with any familiarity with free speech law understands that censorship of political speech is given far more scrutiny than other forms of speech. 2007's Morse v. Frederick (better known as the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case) carved out a very troubling First Amendment exception for drug speech in schools, but made a point to state that students organizing political campaigns to legalize drugs or any other political speech involving drugs is absolutely protected.

So for those of us who care about free speech, or who care about video games, or who care about youth rights, it seems one of the strongest cases we can make in this case is that video games do, in fact, quite often involve political speech. There may indeed have been 131 million murders in Red Dead Redemption, but that stat without the context of the game is meaningless. The game deals with the Old West, political corruption and revolution in Mexico, conflicts between federal power vs. local control (particularly salient in these days of the Tea Party) and many other themes that are subtly or overtly political. This political commentary is absolutely protected by the First Amendment in spite of the 131 million virtual, simulated, pretend murders the game may show.

But since the lawyers and judges have probably not played any games other than Tetris (if that), it is up to youth-led groups like NYRA to point this out. NYRA does need help though. So if any reader here has any familiarity with political speech contained in games, you need to let us know. NYRA is compiling a list of different violent games and detailed descriptions of the political content within them. Anyone with information to contribute (be it on Bioshock, Knights of the Old Republic, Call of Duty or any other game under the sun) should venture over to our blog and write up a nice description in the comments section.

Together we can win this case.

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