Fourteen-year-old Tommy, on his way to baseball practice at a neighborhood park, detours by a local computer-and-appliance store. He has cash in his pocket, earned from mowing lawns. He now invests most of it in a vile video game.
At the ball field, Tommy hands the game to his friend, Billy -- who instantly stashes it in his equipment bag.
"Thanks, Billy," says this hypothetical 14-year-old. "My mom would kill me if she knew I bought that game. We can play it tomorrow when I come over to your place."
When Tommy uses the word "kill" to describe what his mother would do to him, it is a figurative use of the word. The word "kill" is not figurative, however, when it comes to some contemporary video games.
Last summer, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell of Louisiana and the attorneys general of 10 other states submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court defending a law enacted by California. This law prohibited merchants from selling or renting to children video games in which, as the law put it, "the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being if those acts are depicted" in a way that a "reasonable person, considering the game as a whole, would find appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors."
The attorneys general cited a game called "Postal" as an example of what California had in mind.
This game, they told the court, "invited players to: Burn people alive with gasoline or napalm; decapitate people with shovels and have dogs fetch their severed heads; beat police to death while they beg for mercy; kill bald, unshaven men wearing pink dresses (in an 'expansion pack' called "Fag Hunter"); slaughter nude female zombies; urinate on people to make them vomit; and shoot players with a shotgun that has been silenced by ramming it into a cat's anus."
The Entertainment Merchants Association had sued California, charging that its law violated the First Amendment right to free speech of retailers who sold such games to minors without the knowledge or consent of their parents. A federal district court ruled against California. So, too, did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.