The Sixteen-Year-Old In Me Applauds The Supreme Court

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, July 1, 2011 at 10:00 am
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The Supreme Court struck down a law Monday that would have barred the sale of violent video games to California minors. There's been plenty of analysis of the decision. Some call it a big win for the legitimacy of video games as a means of expression. Others take it as yet another sign that American culture and government have things ass-backwards when it comes to sex and violence. The arguments on both sides are as impassioned and well-reasoned as you'd expect. So I let them have their debate elsewhere. Instead I'm going to celebrate like its 1988. Because the sixteen-year-old in me is totally psyched that the Supreme Court has finally come down on my side.

For some of you it may not be very hard to remember what it is like to be sixteen. But for us old folks the frustrations of that time of life are easy (and maybe preferable) to forget. I made a promise when I was sixteen that I wouldn't forget the many slights and wrongs society dumped on me. Of course as I aged it turned out that most of that stuff was just my hormones and underdeveloped emotions messing with me. But I still haven't forgotten what it was like to be simultaneously expected to behave an adult but to be treated like a child. 

Of course the plight of the American teenager isn't anywhere close to a human rights violation. But that doesn't change the fact that I found it frustrating and unfair that at sixteen I held a job, payed taxes and took on the responsibility (and insurance burden) of driving a deadly automobile but couldn't be trusted to watch certain movies. 

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You see, back in the '80s we didn't have ESRB ratings. Games were mostly about plumbers and mushrooms anyway. Doom and Mortal Kombat were still around the corner. So then I got my violent kicks watching horror movies. I rented them (on primitive magnetic tape) as often as I could and read magazines (printed on primitive pulped paper) about them. And when they came to movie theaters I piled into my rusty '76 Chevy Nova with my friends to see them.

Only twice was I turned away. The first time was in 1987 when the Evil Dead II came out. I had no problem getting into rated R movies back then because I was tall, had $2.50 and society didn't really give two shits what the children of the '70s were doing as long as they weren't smoking crack. But the Evil Dead II had been refused a rating by the MPAA and was released unrated. And to cover their asses movie theaters were demanding an I.D. My buddy Mark did the ballsy thing and bought a ticket for Creepshow II and snuck into the movie that wind up being my all-time favorite. But I was too much of a goody-goody to theater jump. I had to wait for the VHS.

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The next year the same thing happened when I tried to see the unrated cut of Hellraiser II. My solution to getting turned away that time was simple. I got in my beater and drove to a movie theater on the other side of town that would take my money. I sat through the whole bloody affair and still managed to be productive member of society.

I think you can see what I'm getting at. Ratings for movies and video games make fine guidelines. They provide an easy rules of thumb to help (lazy) parents make quick decisions about their kid's entertainment consumption. But me and my sixteen-year-old self are adamantly against laws that try to transform those guidelines into hard and fast rules. 

Sixteen-year-olds have enough going against them. They don't have the same free speech rights as adults. Many pay taxes, but are not allowed to vote. Millions take on the serious responsibility of driving a car, but we still consider them too impressionable to handle two hours of Leatherface and his chainsaw. We should cut them some slack.

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I don't believe that watching an R-rated movie or playing and M-rated game will do irreparable (or even temporary) harm to a sixteen-year-old mind. Perhaps that's because my permissive parents raised me under the crazy assumption that treating me like an adult would lead to my acting like an adult. Part of the problem is we've allowed these ratings to carry too much emotional weight. They're like boogeymen. But the fact is that they're just content flags.

An R-rated movie (as rare as they've become lately) contains some nudity, an F-bomb or two and, if you're lucky, a dismembered limb. An M-rated game is pretty much a shooter. And an AO game has sex in it, but who the hell knows what that would look like because AO games pretty much don't exist. If you'll allow me to inject just a little bit of analysis around this decision and the state of the video game industry I'll say this: much of our problem with M-rated games is the ESRB's fault. Our ratings board has been too conservative, especially when it threw Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas under the bus for a hidden sex scene.

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Our industry's dirty secret is that sixteen-year-old gamers all across the country are a large part of the audience for M-rated shooters. They're the ones who are, as we speak, totally owning their fools at Black Ops. And its their little brothers that are playing Halo. Go to your local Target and tell me that all those Warthogs and Master Chief action figures in the toy aisle are for eighteen-year-olds. They're for kids. The Halo series should have been T-rated all along.

Luckily for us (and sixteen-year-olds across the nation) the ESRB's cowardly self-regulation will remain largely toothless. Sure, many stores will continue to play nice and try to prevent the sale of Halo 3: ODST to minors. But young gamers with the money and the motivation will get the games they want to play. And it won't be the end of the world. Parents who don't want their kids to play M-rated games won't have the force of California law to shelter them. They'll have to do like everybody else and stop giving their kids sixty dollars and the keys to the car. 

The reality is that little will change. Parents will still buy their kids Call of Duty for Christmas. Politicians, parent's groups and those who want to make this country less free will continue to wring their hands around video game violence. After the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. ESA the lives of the average American will go virtually unchanged. The life of some sixteen-year-old with a job, a car and a paycheck? It just a tiny bit easier. 

I call that a win for the good guys.

Pretension +1 is weekly column by Gus Mastrapa that spends an inordinate amount of time talking about the Evil Dead II for a series that is supposed to be about the culture of video games. 



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