Let the Games Begin?

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Video games have come a long way since the days when Mario, Contra and Half-Life were played and gone are the days when video games were played by children only. Today, the market is flooded with consoles offering a plethora of choices to gamers. Modern video games are said to consist of highly dynamic audio-visual elements (including pictures, video recordings and sounds) and software, which technically manages the audio-visual components and permits users to interact with the different elements of the game.

These elements in video games present complex issues of authorship as they are protected by various forms of intellectual property, for example; Patent Law covers matters such as gameplay design elements, networking or design database; Trademark Law protects company names, game titles or sub-titles; and Copyright subsists in works such as music, characters or code. As a result, video games represent a complex bundle of intellectual property.

Psychological Effects

Studies show that a young adult can spend around 13 to 14 hours a week playing video games. Such long hours can cause an immense impact on one’s mind. Gamers can have both positive and negative feelings while playing based on the design of the game and how engrossed they become with certain aspects of the game. It is seen that video game addiction can be as problematic as gambling. Within the field of social care, the exposure of young people to violent video games may be viewed within the context of risk factors for the development of aggression. It was recently seen in the “Fire Fairy” and the “Blue Whale” games how children were lured in to inflict pain on themselves so much so that it lead to mass suicides and mental suffering.

The California Law charges a $1,000 fine on anyone who sells or rents a “violent video game” to a minor. Such a video game is defined as a game in which the player has the option of “killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being in offensive ways”. Parents or guardians are however still permitted to buy those games for minors.

In Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, 564 U.S. 786 (2011), a landmark case by the Supreme Court of The United States that struck down a 2005 California law banning the sale of certain violent video games to children without parental supervision. In a 7–2 decision, the Court upheld the lower Court’s decisions and nullified the law, ruling that the violent video games did not constitute “obscenity” under the First Amendment.

In the video game, Postal 2, the user gets to “go postal” and receive points for killing as many innocent victims as possible while they beg for money. The censorship efforts of the video game industry started after a spate of school shootouts by children, allegedly influenced by violent video games. This decision is a total and unambiguous assertion of the fact that video games have the same constitutional status as a painting, film, and book.

Let the game begin?
A screenshot from “Postal 2” for PCs.

However, India has formulated various laws under the Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology Act to penalize and quash all obscene and lascivious matter sold to minors/young persons, as seen in, Director General, Directorate General of Doordarshan & Ors vs Anand Patwardhan & Anr (Appeal (civil) 613 of 2005 of Supreme Court). Despite all of the above, India needs specific legislation relating to the video game industry, as has been attempted by other countries.

Crime In The Virtual World

What happens when theft, misappropriation or damage to digital property or breach of gaming rules have incurred?

Who is to blame in times of virtual rape, assault, fraud or any conduct affecting avatars or property with real-world consequences?

The article; “A Rape in Cyberspace” written by freelance journalist Julian Dibbell deals with the relationship between the virtual world and the real world. It was first published in The Village Voice in 1993 and soon found its way into scholarly discussions regarding cyberspace. The article describes a gruesome “cyber rape” in a multi-player computer game called LambdaMOO which is a virtual community (still in existence), allowing players to interact using avatars. The avatars are user-programmable and may interact automatically with each other and with objects and locations in the “community”. The particular incident involved an alleged ‘virtual rape’ of a female user by a young boy, in the purely text-based virtual world, as seen below.

Let the Game Begin?
Let the Game Begin?

The “victim” in this case was emotionally traumatized and sought legal recourse. However, technically, this act of virtual rape was perfectly legal since no laws were broken in the process as Terms of Service (ToS) and an End User License Agreement (EULA) was voluntarily signed while registering the account. After several protests against the said video game, the perpetrator (his avatar) faced “eternal banishment” only to be reincarnated later.

Was that adequate justice?

The rape of an avatar may produce some real-world physical discomfort or shock among unsuspecting or novice users. This could be prevented by modifying simulation codes or real-world counselling to deal with psychological or emotional harms or improved education about recognized risks for new users. Formal criminal intervention would only have a place if an appreciable and measurable effect on the real-world victim could be established, or if the violation clearly falls under the established criminal provisions targeting harmful online conduct.

Such dismissal of a crime in the virtual world could be very dangerous which gives the perpetrator the liberty to transcend it into the real world. It lets the user believe that it’s permissible to perform such acts in the real world without any repercussions. The linking of violent activities by children to video games has hitherto been viewed as a very far-fetched connection by the Courts of Law. But the coincidences are too many and the reports of psychiatrists around the world linking the two are hard to ignore.

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