Gone are the days when video-game players were content to destroy asteroids on their Ataris.
Nintendo's affable Mario and Luigi have been replaced by characters who slay demon babies, slit their own wrists, slaughter innocent bystanders and use fallen comrades as "meat shields" on their way through gruesome virtual worlds.
Whether there should be laws keeping such games out of the hands of kids has been the subject of legal battles around the country. The U.S. Supreme Court this year is expected to review California's 2005 law that would ban sales of violent games to minors.
Federal courts have twice blocked the law from being enacted
The nation's video-game sellers contend that the law, which mandates "18-and-over" stickers for the bloodiest games, and $1,000 fines for stores that sell them to children, violates the freedom of speech provision in the U.S. Constitution.
"Video games have been recognized as being expressive material that is entitled to First Amendment protection just like books, just like music, just like movies," said Sean Bersall, spokesman for the Entertainment Merchants Association. "Minors have First Amendment rights."
The association, which represents roughly 300 retailers operating about 40,000 stores, successfully sued to block the law from going into effect. But the state contends that such video games desensitize children to violence, cause them to harbor internal feelings of aggression, hurt their studies and lead to violent behavior
"There's scenes where you get bonus points for shooting -- kneecapping -- an image of a school girl and pulling out a gas can, and setting her on fire and urinating on the flames," said state Supervising Deputy Attorney General Zackery Morazzini, referring to 2003's "Postal 2."
"There are some horrible games out there, which are completely inappropriate for minors to be playing without the involvement and guidance of their parents," he said.
Morazzini, who will argue the state's side before the high court, is now preparing to submit briefs outlining his case, as well as a video demonstration showing some of the most graphic games.
No date has been set for oral arguments, though the court is expected to take up the case this fall.
Under the state's law, retailers would be banned from selling minors any games "in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being."
Penned by then-assemblyman, now state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bill seeks to treat violent video games much like sexually explicit material, which cannot be sold to children.
Beyond arguing that the law violates the First Amendment, lawyers for the industry will argue that the law is unnecessary. A system already in place rates games on a scale ranging from EC for "early childhood" to AO for "adults only."
Stores generally will not stock the latter category, making M for "mature" -- which applies to about 15 percent of games -- the rating for nearly all the most violent games.
The industry has pledged not to sell any M-rated games to children under the age of 18, but the system has come under fire.
In 2000, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission released a report detailing the results of an undercover investigation. The report found that children ages 13-16 were able to buy M-rated games 85 percent of the time and that marketing for most M-rated games actually targeted children.
The industry has showed steady improvement in enforcing the restrictions. A 2009 FTC study found that retailers were denying sales of M-rated games 80 percent of the time. But the industry's system remains voluntary and does not have the force of law behind it.
California's law would take effect immediately if the Supreme Court overturns the lower courts decisions. And the court's ruling is expected to reverberate far beyond the Golden State.
Over the past decade, eight other states -- along with the city of Indianapolis, Ind., and St. Louis County, Mo. -- have passed similar laws and ordinances to stop kids from playing violent video games. All have been challenged by the industry and all have been blocked by the courts.
"We've got all the precedent on our side," said Bersall of the Merchants Association.
He said he expects the justices to uphold the previous rulings.
"If the court does that, then I think that's going to be the final word on these kinds of laws," he said.