NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Politically, 2003 isn't getting off to a great start for gaming companies. Rested from its winter vacations, the government seems more eager than ever to hold the industry's feet to the fire.
In February, Rep. Joe Baca (D. Calif.) is expected to resurrect "The Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act". (The original version died last year in the subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security.) When it's reintroduced, the bill will have the same goal: making it a federal crime to sell or rent violent video games to anyone under 18. The language, though, is being reworked. Last year's proposal failed to get traction because of concerns about the scope of the bill and potential first amendment issues. Aggressive lobbying efforts by retailers and the gaming industry – certain to be repeated this year – also played a role in the defeat.
Baca's office told me the new bill is being modeled on a St. Louis ordinance that makes it illegal to sell or rent a violent video game to a minor without a parent/guardian's consent. Passed in 2000, that ordinance withstood a legal challenge by the gaming industry in 2002, which claimed the law was a violation of First Amendment rights. (That U.S. District Court ruling currently stands as the gaming industry's most significant legal defeat, though another appeal is underway.)
Baca's original bill solely targeted retailers. This year's version, though, might widen its net and include Cyber Cafes, though no final decision has been made on that. (Over the past year, there have been occasional acts of violence at these cafes in California, including one incident where two teens suffered gunshot wounds.)
Cyber Cafes are a fairly limited market, though. The real impact of this proposed law, if passed, would be on retailers, who would be the ones penalized for infractions. The gaming industry would see a trickle down effect if sales suffered.
|"Postal 2," which is bound to earn an "M" rating upon release, would be affected by the bill.
Directly targeting gaming companies, you see, would be a fool's mission for politicians. The St. Louis ruling notwithstanding, any government effort to dictate what developers put into a game would be a blatant violation of the First Amendment. Putting the onus on retailers is safer legally, but raises some issues of its own.
There's no question that stores need to do a better job policing themselves when it comes to the sale and rental of "M"-rated games. Children are getting their hands on mature titles too easily, thanks in part to the teens that typically work the registers. (There's no quicker road to popularity than giving your peers access to something verboten.)
The obvious solution is to hire adults to work those registers. The pay scale for such a job is a lot less than many adults are willing to work for, though. This leaves retailers facing two less than appealing choices: Substantially raise salaries while sales remain flat or take the risk of violating the law.
Some stores tried an unusual approach when the controversial dud "BMX XXX" went on sale, putting the game behind the counter, with everything except the title covered by a thick piece of black plastic (picture Playboy magazine behind a convenience store counter). The game flopped, but it wasn't because of that plastic. Aside from a few curiosity seekers, gamers scoffed at this title.
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Better parental supervision is unquestionably required, but we're not seeing a lot of progress on that front. Too many guardians cling to the belief that games haven't progressed beyond Pac Man and Mario, and thus take little to no interest in what their children are playing. Others vilify all M-rated games, not realizing there's a world of difference between titles like "Postal" (where you kill indiscriminately) and the "Thief" games (where stealth is encouraged and you face repercussions for killing).
Federal laws regulating sales of these games is a knee-jerk reaction. (Note that you don't see any such laws regulating the film or television industries, which depict more brutal acts of violence all the time.) Retailer efforts to do something about the situation have obviously floundered. I'll admit I'm a little stumped here, too. What do you think? Send me your proposed solutions and we'll compare notes in a future column.
Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.