Video games have been a popular form of entertainment for decades, and the industry has experienced tremendous growth. As with any popular medium, there are laws, regulations, and industry norms governing video games in the United States.
In this post, we’ll explore some of the key video game laws in the US and what they mean for game developers and players.
The First Amendment
Perhaps the most important law governing video games in the US is the First Amendment. This amendment guarantees the right to free speech and expression, including the right to create and distribute video games. Video games are therefore generally afforded the same protections as other forms of expression, such as books, movies, and music.
However, there are some exceptions to this rule, in general. For example, a video game could be deemed to be too obscene or that it incites violence. This may be subject to censorship or other legal action, though I can’t think of any instances where this has actually happened.
Intellectual Property Laws
Intellectual property laws are important for video game developers, publishers, and purchasers. In the United States, intellectual property protections are granted through Article I of the Constitution and various federal and state laws.
Intellectual property includes patents, trademarks, and copyrights. Generally speaking, they protect the rights of creators, inventors, and consumers.
In the context of video games, intellectual property laws can be used to protect the game itself, as well as any characters, artwork, music, and other creative elements that are part of the game or its branding. For example, a developer may obtain a patent for a new gameplay mechanic, or a publisher may register a trademark for a popular game franchise.
Additionally, intellectual property laws can be used to enforce the rights of game creators. For example, if someone infringes on a developer’s copyright by copying the game without permission, the developer may be able to take legal action to stop the infringement and seek damages.
Overall, understanding and complying with intellectual property laws is an important part of creating and distributing video games in the US. By protecting their intellectual property rights, developers and publishers can ensure their creations are not copied or otherwise misappropriated. Further, they can maintain control over the distribution of their games and future derivative products.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a federal law regulating the collection of personal information from children under the age of 13.
COPPA comes into effect for video games targeting children under 13. It also affects those sites, services, and games whose operators actually know they collect personal information from a child under 13.
COPPA may require game developers to obtain parental consent before collecting personal information, such as names and email addresses.
There are laws in the US requiring video games to be accessible to people with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires public accommodations are accessible to people with disabilities. In the video game context, features such as closed captions and alternative text for visual elements may be required. See this post for more info!
Video game developers and publishers are subject to employment laws in the US. These laws include regulations related to minimum wage, overtime, and workplace safety.
Each state has its own gambling laws, some of which may affect video games. For example, some states have laws prohibiting online gambling or requiring that gambling be regulated by state authorities.
This can affect games that include in-game purchases, such as loot boxes, that are similar to gambling. Some states consider wholly in-game mechanics to be gambling; most do not. Other states require a cashing-out mechanic.
It is important to speak with an attorney prior to publishing a game with gambling-like mechanics to assess your risks and ensure compliance with the law.
In addition to federal laws, video game developers and publishers in the US must also be aware of state privacy laws. These laws vary and often impose additional requirements and restrictions on the collection and use of personal information.
Some states, such as California, have enacted comprehensive privacy laws that apply to a wide range of businesses, including those in the video game industry. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) requires businesses to disclose the categories of personal information they collect, the purposes for which the information is used, and to whom the information is disclosed. The CCPA also gives consumers the right to request access to, and deletion of, their personal information.
Other states, such as New York and Illinois, have enacted laws specifically targeting biometric data, which can include things like facial recognition and fingerprint scans. These laws generally require businesses to obtain consent before collecting biometric data and to take measures to protect that data’s security.
Because state privacy laws can be complex and vary widely, it’s important for video game developers and publishers to stay up-to-date on the latest developments and to ensure that their practices are in compliance with applicable laws. Failing to comply with state privacy laws can result in legal liability, reputational harm, and other negative consequences.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB)
The ESRB is a self-regulatory organization assigning content-based ratings to video games. These ratings can range from “E” for Everyone to “AO” for Adults Only. The ESRB was created in response to concerns about violent and sexually explicit content in video games, and it is now the industry standard for game ratings in the US.
Though the ESRB is not a government agency, its ratings are widely recognized and used. Major retailers, such as Walmart and Best Buy, as well as online marketplaces, like Amazon and Steam follow ESRB ratings.
Laws impacting video games in the US are complex and varied, impacting game developers and players alike. The First Amendment and intellectual property laws guarantee the right to create and distribute video games, but other laws and norms regulating the industry must be considered.
As the video game industry continues to evolve, it is likely the regulations governing video games evolve in tandem. As long as developers, publishers, and players stay informed, they can continue to create and enjoy video games that are both entertaining and legally compliant.
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