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New Bill Joins Chorus Against Violent Games

20 Feb, 2003 By: Kurt Indvik

A slew of federal, state and local bills and ordinances trying to restrict the sale or rental of ‘Mature'-rated games to minors is still on tap, according to the Video Software Dealers Association (VSDA), which is active in monitoring and responding to various legal challenges to video games, especially violent ones.

U.S. Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) Feb. 13 reintroduced legislation aimed at curbing the sale or rental of “violent and sexually oriented” video games to minors that failed to make it out of committee before last year's session of Congress ended. The new bill, H.R. 669, would make it a federal crime for retailers to sell or rent ‘M'- or ‘AO'(Adults Only)-rated games to children.

The new bill does not list activities that would be prohibited in games available to kids without parental permission, according to information released by Baca's office. Instead, “the bill criminalizes selling to children under 18 games that contain violent or sexually explicit content, as defined by prevailing community standards, and that could be considered harmful to minors.”

“By introducing the new and improved Protect Children From Video Game Sex and Violence Act, we're sending a loud and clear message to the video game industry and retailers: Parents will decide what games their children should purchase and play, not you,” Baca said.

The VSDA March 12 will join the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth District in challenging a St. Louis County ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor to rent or sell any video game that is deemed “harmful to minors” to anyone under 17 without parental consent. The ordinance includes video games that violate U.S. Supreme Court standards for obscenity and/or contain either “graphic violence” or “strong sexual content.” The appeal, however, is focused only on the issue of violence. The previous trial court judge found that video games were not constitutionally protected under the area of free speech and that the county had a “compelling interest” in restricting minors' access to violent video games.

There are similar bills pending in at least six states: Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington, said Sean Bersell, VP of public affairs for the VSDA. Another in Florida is reportedly being prepared for introduction, Bersell said.

According to Bersell, the various legal actions all threaten to remove video games as a form of expression the VSDA and other trade groups believe is protected under the First Amendment, and make retailers responsible for enforcing parental-controlled access to games that are rated as inappropriate for minors.

“We have come a long way from Pac-Man,” said Bersell. “There is a new generation of games that are more realistic and more graphic, with more intense depictions of violence. People do have concerns about children's access to entertainment that parents might be concerned about, and we recognize those concerns, but the solutions being proposed are the wrong solutions.”

Bersell said the VSDA and the IDSA are trying to articulate three major arguments regarding voluntarily monitored ratings system for video games.

First, government cannot restrict the availability of “expressive material” solely on the basis that they contain depictions of violence.

Second, such laws would turn over to an independent third party (the Entertainment Software Ratings Board or ESRB) the ability to decide what is appropriate for minors.

Third, the associations educate legislators and the courts on the “parental empowerment” programs retailers already have in place voluntarily to ensure that parents are aware of, and have tools to control, what video games their children are buying or renting.

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