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Court To Rule on Age-Limit Law for Video-Game Parlors

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The U.S. Supreme Court last week heard arguments in a test case that could drastically affect the booming video games industry.

At issue is the constitutionality of a town ordinance in Mesquite, Tex., that bars individuals under 17 years of age from playing coin-operated pinball or video computer-games in public arcades unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian.

A trade group, the Amusement Device Manufacturers Association, filed papers with the Court arguing that if the ordinance is upheld, the amusement industry will be "grievously crippled."

The law has existed since 1973, but the current controversy began in 1976 when Aladdin's Castle, a subsidiary of Bally Manufacturing Corporation, proposed to open an arcade in a shopping mall in the Dallas suburb.

After temporarily lifting the age restriction, the city manager refused Aladdin's appli6cation for a license because he believed Bally (whose officers had been indicted on, but absolved of, racketeering charges) was connected to organized crime.

A Texas state court said Mesquite had violated state law in denying the license. After reissuing the license, Mesquite rewrote the ordinance and reinstated the 17-year-old age limit.

The new ordinance also required the police chief to investigate applicants' possible connection with "criminal elements" before making a licensing decision.

A district court said the "criminal elements" portion of the ordinance was constitutionally vague, but upheld the age restriction.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans agreed on the vagueness issue but said the age restriction was also unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. The city then appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Philip Tone, who argued the Aladdin's Castle side, said that such an ordinance could reasonably be applied to any amusement area, including bowling alleys or skating rinks.

Justice John Paul Stevens also queried the distinction involved. "Why doesn't that rationale apply to miniature golf courses?" he asked.

And Chief Justice Warren E. Burger asked Mesquite City Attorney Elland Archer: "Suppose the police reported that a great deal of drug traffic was taking place in three city parks? Would the counsel pass an ordinance keeping people under 17 out of them?"

Mr. Archer, who drafted the law eight years ago, replied that the Mesquite ordinance addresses only the arcades.

Both sides discussed the constitutional right of free association. The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled last year that the ordinance violates the constitutional rights of people under the age of 17 to associate with one another.

Mr. Tone said the age limit abridges the rights of minors to "expression and social association." He added: "The Court has held that entertainment is a form of expression, and the games here are a form of entertainment, in which players participate in the designer's special fantasy."

"We are saying," Mr. Archer said, "that you can't take the term 'association' in its ordinary sense and apply the protection given the term under the constitution. If a customer pays 25 cents for using a machine and we consider this an association, then every commercial activity known to man becomes a First Amendment activity.

"The question is whether the playing of a coin-operated machine is a fundamental right," he added.3 Bally reported revenues of $38.3 million from Aladdin in 1980, but the amount of money made in the entire computer-game industry is undetermined.

An executive of Gottlieb Pinball Inc. has said it is a $7.5-billion-per-year business, but admitted that is an "educated guess."

Other estimates range from $3 billion to $9 billion. One amusement company told the Court that as many as a million coin-operated amusement machines and jukeboxes are in operation in the U.S.

Video Games Popular

Video games, which have evolved from simple games like "Pong," in which participants batted a fast-moving blip back and forth, have exploded in popularity since the introduction of the Japanese-made game, "Space Invaders," three years ago.

Parents and communities all over the country, disturbed at the seemingly inexhaustible desire of children to feed quarters into the game machines, are trying to devise ways to regulate their use. For example:

Last summer the village of Irvington, N.Y., passed an ordinance that limits the number of video devices in any business to three and requires a $100 license fee for each. It does not establish an age minimum.'

In Anne Arundel County, Md., strict zoning and permit laws are making it difficult for franchise operators to obtain permission to do business. The director of inspections and permits in the county has turned down three applications so far this year in response to community criticism of the games.

Providence, R.I., police have reported an outbreak of parking-meter robberies. Reportedly, they arrested 20 adolescents in a recent three-week period on charges of stealing $200 from meters. Police say the thieves feed the stolen coins directly into computer-game machines.

The complaints in all these cases are the same as Mesquite's: the arcades allegedly become "hangouts" that breed disorderly conduct, public drinking, and drug sales.

Parents say their children are obsessed by the games; they miss school and use all their money to play them.

Critics of the games also say that they become, in the words of an Irvington, N.Y., resident, a form of "addictive behavior modification.''

But none of these connections has been demonstrated.

Several leading researchers in the field of children and television said last week they knew of no documented evidence of such a connection.

Although they commented that "someone is probably doing something," they said they were not aware of any such studies.

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