Battle over violent video games heating up

January 29, 2004
USA Today
By Larry Copeland

The fight over children's use of violent video games is escalating as parents, retailers, legal scholars and elected officials debate proposals to restrict minors' access to the most violent games.

Disputes in Florida, California, Washington state and Congress pit parents and lawmakers who say the games may prompt some teens to commit violence against merchants and civil libertarians who say no link exists and that such entertainment is a constitutionally protected form of free speech.

Both sides are watching a case in Washington state that some legal analysts predict will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court (news - web sites). The state passed a law last year restricting the sale to minors of some violent games. Video game manufacturers argued that the law violated the First Amendment's free speech protection. A federal judge barred enforcement of the law until a hearing in June. Both sides have said they will appeal if they lose.

"Fresh ground in law will be made, one way or the other," says William Mayton, law professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

In the meantime, some elected officials are proposing laws that would keep the most violent games from children:

- The City Council in North Miami, Fla., on Tuesday approved an ordinance requiring retailers to get written parental approval before selling or renting such games to anyone younger than 17. But the council delayed enforcement until key court cases are decided. Under the measure, retailers would be warned, then fined up to $500 a day for repeated violations.

- California Assemblyman Leland Yee, who holds a doctorate in child psychology, introduced a bill this month that would limit sales of the most violent video games by adding them to existing laws regulating the distribution of "harmful matter" to minors. A second bill would require that such games be displayed separately from other games and on higher shelves so children can't see them. "We have tailored this bill narrowly enough to withstand constitutional muster," Yee says.

- U.S. Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) said he is gathering support for his bill limiting minors' access to the most violent video games. A previous version of Baca's bill died in committee in 2002. His current legislation is awaiting a hearing by the House Judiciary Committee (news - web sites).

Most efforts to limit access to games have failed. But the games become more realistic with each generation of animation technology. The most violent games, in which players gun down human targets, are gory.

As video games have supplanted simpler diversions as a preferred escape of America's youth, the industry has prospered. It achieved $6.9 billion in sales in 2002. An estimated 145 million Americans play video games, and adults buy nine out of every 10 games sold, according to industry statistics.

Those who favor laws restricting the sale or rental of violent videos to minors say government should treat the games like alcohol or tobacco. They say that retailers don't always enforce a voluntary rating system and that parents don't know how violent some videos are. They say growing scientific evidence links playing violent video games to violent behavior.

Opponents of such bans say the industry polices itself and that most videos are purchased by parents or with their consent. And they question the validity of studies suggesting a link between playing violent video games and violence.

"We don't ever get complaints from parents that the rating system is broken," says Bo Andersen, president of the Video Software Dealers Association. "What you have is government trying to step in and take control of what is a parental responsibility."

Questions about whether watching violent entertainment sparks violent acts are nothing new. In 1977, a Florida teen's lawyer argued that "television intoxication" caused his client to murder an elderly neighbor when he was 15. The jury rejected that argument and convicted Ronny Zamora, who will be freed from prison in June after serving almost 27 years.

Proponents of government restrictions argue that the interactive nature of violent video games, in which players kill human targets over and over again, take them beyond the realm of movies and television. Courts so far have rejected that argument.

Part of the dispute in North Miami centers on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a game that contains the phrase "kill the Haitians." South Florida has thousands of Haitian immigrants. Haitians in New York and Boston also have protested the game, in which players kill Haitians and Cubans.

Take-Two Interactive Software and Rockstar Games of New York, the game's manufacturers, have apologized and promised to delete such language from future editions.

A federal appeals court in June overturned a St. Louis County, Mo., law restricting minors' access to some video games. The court reversed a district court's conclusion that video games are not protected speech. The court found that St. Louis County's contention that the games can damage some players' psychological health was "unsupported in the record." Another appeals court struck down a similar law in Indianapolis in 2001.

Washington state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, who sponsored the bill in her state, said her legislation isn't censorship. "There is a great deal of precedent for restricting dangerous things like alcohol and tobacco to minors," she says.

The difference, Mayton says, is that any effects of video games are mental, and the First Amendment protects against thought-control by the government.

"Having said that, the First Amendment's not an absolute," he says. "If you can show that the games do cause people to go out there and hurt others, you've got a case for an exception. Perhaps."