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California Law Fires at Violent Video Games

7 Oct, 2005 By: Kurt Indvik

California is taking aim at violent video games.

Today California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that bans the sale or rental of so-called violent video games to persons under the age of 18. The new law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2006.

“Many of these games are made for adults and choosing games that are appropriate for kids should be a decision made by their parents,” Schwarzenegger said upon his announcing he had signed A.B. 1179.

Entertainment industry groups opposed to the bill immediately announced they will sue the state to have the bill thrown out on First Amendment grounds, among other objections. The Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) is joining the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) in filing suit, much like their current effort against Michigan after Governor Jennifer Granholm last month signed a bill banning the rental or sale of violent video games to persons under the age of 17.

“Not only is A.B. 1179 a clear violation of the First Amendment, but it provides no meaningful standards to know which materials are covered,” said Bo Andersen, president of the VSDA, in a statement issued immediately following the governor's announcement.

According to a legislative summary of the bill, under the new law a violent video game is defined, in part, as a game that depicts serious killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being in a way that is “especially heinous, cruel or depraved.”

In a letter to Governor Schwarzenegger opposing the bill, the VSDA noted the bill's definitions for violent video games borrows from the federal definition qualifying consideration for the death penalty. The new law also uses a three-part test for “offensiveness” derived from the legal test for obscenity. In this case it calls for what a “reasonable person” would think and that the “prevailing standards of the community” are regarding depictions of violence. These are issues normally decided on by juries on a case-by-case basis, the VSDA argues.

“Thus, no one could ever know with certainty whether a particular game would be found to be a ‘violent video game,’ Andersen said today.The new law, says the VSDA in its letter, is far too vague and, “repeatedly refers to the intent of the player and in one instance to the reaction of the player. No manufacturer, distributor or retailer can know in advance whether an individual purchasing or renting a video game will intent to ‘inflict a high degree of pain' on a virtual victim or will ‘relish' the virtual killing.”

The new law requires manufacturers and/or distributors to label such violent video games before shipping to retailers, who are then restricted from renting those games to persons under the age of 18. The label must read “18” in sold while, outlined in black and must be no smaller than 2” x 2”. Retailers can be fined up to $1,000 if they have been found to have rented or sold a labeled violent video game to a minor.

The VSDA and ESA, in opposing this and Michigan's new law, note that all similar laws restricting violent video games have been overthrown in courts up to now. The groups also point to the industry ESRB ratings program as an effective system for allowing parents to make their own determination if a game is appropriate for their children to play.

“Instead of passing laws that are destined to be overturned by the courts, the state of California should be encouraging parents to use the existing video game ratings and content descriptor's to make informed choices about whether to bring a particular video game into their homes,” the VSDA's Andersen said.

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