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Would you let your child shoot an alien?

By Jonathan Mann, CNN
Gun-toting soldiers take on aliens in "Halo: Reach."
Gun-toting soldiers take on aliens in "Halo: Reach."
  • Supreme Court is considering whether violent video games should be sold to children
  • California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger leading campaign for tougher rules
  • Judges considering whether violence against aliens, life-like machines should also count
  • many studies suggest a correlation between games and aggressive behavior

"Our Mann in America" is a weekly column discussing the big talking points in the U.S. for an international audience. Jonathan Mann is an anchor for CNN International and the host of Political Mann.

(CNN) -- Some of the most important people in Washington were ignoring America's midterm elections this week and spending their time on video games.

The justices of the Supreme Court were considering a landmark case about some of the core values of American life -- freedom, family and fun with extraterrestrials -- at the request of occasional on-screen alien Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And none of it was a joke.

The case turns on whether a California statute endorsed by Governor Schwarzenegger can lawfully ban the sale to minors of any game featuring people doing particularly violent and nasty things to each other.

Some of the best legal minds in the country are raising very particular questions:

"Would a video game that portrayed a Vulcan as opposed to a human being, being maimed and tortured, would that be covered?" asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The answer from California's attorney was that the law is only directed at hard-core violence against human characters. Your 12-year-old would retain the right to simulate torture any other life form.

So Sotomayor asked about violence against life-like machines such as androids. It was that kind of conversation in the nation's high court.

The truth is, there is nothing light-hearted about the controversy.

Videogames are a $10 billion-a-year industry employing 120,000 people in the U.S., according to the Entertainment Software Association, the trade group that launched the court suit.

There are more videogames in American homes than people.

Obviously you can multiply the numbers worldwide many times because gaming is a global phenomenon.

Videogame culture extends far beyond the home, from celluloid to the cell phone. You can watch Angelina Jolie play a videogame character in the "Tomb Raider" movies, one of a growing list of films spawned by a game, or you can play "Tomb Raider" yourself on your iPhone.

So can your kids. And that's the problem.

The most violent and often the most popular videogames give impressionable minds the illusion that they can murder, decapitate and dismember people in astonishing ways, as amusement.

"Postal," for example, trades on the tasteless cliche that postal workers are prone to explosions of senseless homicidal violence.

Players embark on a rampage that leaves their victims screaming, writhing and crawling across a blood-soaked landscape, begging for mercy. The game also offers a special "suicide" option to end the action.

Maybe it's no surprise that a growing number of scientific studies argue that there is a correlation between the games and aggressive behavior among young people.

America's most infamous high-school murder spree, the killing of 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999, may have been linked, however tangentially, to videogames the two teenaged killers enjoyed.

One of them nicknamed his gun "Arlene," apparently after a character in the particularly graphic game "Doom."

"Doom" sold millions of copies and spawned a franchise of follow-up games, including "Doom II: Hell on Earth" and "Final Doom."

Under the voluntary ratings system America uses, it was classified as "M" for "Mature," inviting stores to voluntarily restrict sales to young people. Many do.

The author of the California bill is a state senator and child psychologist who says the voluntary system isn't working well enough and only a legal ban backed by $1,000 fines will make merchants comply. The sale of pornography is already regulated in ways that the courts have approved. California says it's asking for comparable authority.

The industry says that as a practical matter the current system is successful. As a legal matter, it says the games are protected by the same constitutional guarantee of free speech as books and movies.

Several lower courts have considered the case. Some judges have expressed disdain for the games themselves but most have ruled for the game makers.

At the Supreme Court, some of the judges seemed inclined to as well. Justice Antonin Scalia compared the violence to the more familiar story-book threats posed by menacing wolves, dark forests and evil step-mothers.

"Some of the Grimm's fairy tales are quite grim," he said.

But what happens when Little Red Riding runs into a psychopath with a machine gun in living color and stereo sound? Should children be there, pulling a trigger?

Scalia and his colleagues are expected to deliver their ruling later in the year.