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Lawmakers Assail Violent Video Games

21 Jan, 2004 By: Kurt Indvik

A spate of local and state laws seeking to restrict the sale or rental of violent video games has popped up across the country in recent weeks, despite well-publicized court rulings against similar measures last year.

In California, Assemblyman Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) introduced two bills in the California state legislature at the beginning of the year to control minors' access to certain types of video games.

“The first bill will expand the definition of ‘harmful matter to children' to include video games where the player virtually commits serious injury to human beings in a manner that is especially heinous, atrocious or cruel,” Yee said in announcing the bill. “I believe the game manufacturers have the constitutional right to produce [‘M'-rated games] for adults, but clearly these graphically violent games are harmful to children.”

Yee's second bill would require video game retailers to display ‘M'-rated games out of view of small children and to separate them from other games. The bill also would mandate the display of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings system, and stores would be prohibited from providing access to minors of free preview-play displays of ‘M'-rated games.

The Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA) has sent a letter to Yee opposing the two bills.

“These bills would violate the First Amendment rights of video retailers and their customers, as video games are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment,” wrote Sean Bersell, the VSDA's VP of public affairs, in the letter.

Bersell also noted that Supreme Court and recent lower-court rulings on similar laws regarding violent video games have found, among other things, that “ … it is impermissible to impose legal restrictions, absent compelling state interest, on the retail display of video games that are neither obscene nor obscene for minors. There can be no compelling state interest that would justify stigmatizing ‘Mature'-rated video games by segregating them away from games with other ratings.”

In Virginia, HB 397 was introduced Jan. 14 into that state's legislature. It mirrors a bill introduced last year in Washington state that makes it a misdemeanor to sell or rent to minors any video game that depicts violence against police officers.

Meanwhile back in Washington State, SB 6080 calls for a task force to prepare a report on how the state can help to curb antisocial and violent behavior in minors and also what impact violent video games may have on juveniles. That report is due by the end of the year.

Less than two weeks ago, the North Miami City Council introduced an ordinance that requires retailers to get written parental approval before selling or renting violent video games to people under 18, according to the newspaper the Miami Herald. Retailers failing to do so could be subject to a $250 fine.

The ordinance, according to the newspaper, was the result of a furor that erupted within that city's Haitian community about language and images in Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which encourages players to “kill all Haitians.” Rockstar has reportedly agreed to remove the offending remarks from future issues of the game, but that has apparently not mollified the community.

The measure was given preliminary approval by the North Miami City Council, the majority of which is composed of Haitian-Americans. It is up for a second vote this week.

According to the Miami Herald, critics of the ordinance said the law could impact a very broad range of video games because the law's language is so broad: “a video game or computer game that contains realistic or photographic-like depictions of aggressive conflict in which the player kills, injures or otherwise causes serious physical harm to a human form in the game.”

The VSDA was in discussions with the city council last week, said Bersell, and opposes the ordinance.

Pressure on violent video games was a constant issue throughout 2003, even eliciting a coalition of religious institutional investors last November to call on 10 of the largest U.S. retailers to disclose if and how they are prohibiting children from buying violent entertainment in their stores.

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