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Commentary > Game Over
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Congress vs. Grand Theft Auto
Gaming as a felony? Someone needs to check with the Surgeon General.
May 9, 2002: 10:14 AM EDT

If you thought the recent court decision ruling that games weren't protected under the First Amendment was scary, you ain't seen nothing yet.

A bill is currently making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives that would make it a federal crime to sell or rent violent video games to anyone under 18. Violators of the act would be slapped with a fine of up to $1,000 the first time, up to $5,000 the second time and a minimum of $5,000 or 90 days in jail for subsequent offenses.

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Dubbed "The Protect Children fromVideo Game Sex and Violence Act of 2002," the bill is the brainchild of Rep. Joe Baca (D. Calif.). In it, he targets games that feature decapitation, amputation, murder, carjacking and other real-world felonies. That would put games such as the wildly popular "Grand Theft Auto 3" and the forthcoming "Doom III" square in the bill's sites. With close to two dozen Representatives supporting it, the bill is currently being reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee.

Let's, for the moment, leave aside the obvious argument that the decision to allow children to play these games lies with the parent and the government has no right to dictate how parents raise their children. And let's resist the temptation to somehow tie this in with Judge Stephen Limbaugh's recent ruling. Instead, how about we take a look at a couple of the bill's key findings?

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Under the bill, it would be a felony to sell Grand Theft Auto 3 to a minor

The use and observation of video games that contain sexual or violent content can be harmful to minors and reasonable restrictions will significantly decrease the number of minors using these games.

Ok, here's where things get really sticky. There's a popular perception that playing any of the games that prominently feature violence makes the player more aggressive and violent in the real world. Problem is, no one can back that up - not even the government.

A 2001 Surgeon General report on youth violence found no research to back up claims that violence in the media results in long-term violence.

Looking specifically at video games, the report said "the overall effect size for both randomized and correlational studies was small for physical aggression. ... The impact of video games on violent behavior remains to be determined."

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The Australian government spent four years looking at the effect of computer game violence on players, parents and other members of the community. What'd they find? Not much.

The 1999 executive summary said the study had found "no evidence that members of the community perceive computer games as a major social problem, and none of the independent research to date has demonstrated serious effects of aggressive game play upon young people's behaviour [sic]."

In December 2001, a study by the Federal Trade Commission showed that retailers allowed 78 percent of unaccompanied minors, ages 13 to 16, to purchase video games rated as `Mature' by the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

Ok, yes, the gaming industry could use a little more enforcement of its rating system. The ESRB does a wonderful job of pointing out which titles are appropriate for everyone and which are suited for mature audiences. Once the games get to retail, though, it's up to the cashier to enforce that rating and that's where the system falls short.

Solving that problem remains troublesome, but the movie industry's enforcement of the "R" rating is a good model. It's an entirely voluntary system, but one that publisher (the studios) and distributor (the theaters) have agreed to. Kids slip through, sure, but that's going to happen in any situation where you're trying to deny them access to something. Once forbidden, it automatically becomes cooler.

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You don't, however, see any calls to jail or fine minimum-wage earning ticket takers who let a 16 year old into "Pulp Fiction." The mere thought of such a thing is ridiculous. Yet this is essentially what Rep. Baca is calling for.

It's not the first time we've seen something like this not even this year. In February, a Democrat state representative in Georgia introduced a bill that would make the sale or rental of mature rated games to people under 18 a misdemeanor. (The bill died in committee.)

Perhaps the best example of common sense in this issue came from Connecticut Governor John Rowland, who last year vetoed a bill that would have prohibited business owners from allowing minors to play certain video games.

"I believe that violence in our society is a real problem that deserves meaningful answers," he wrote in a letter to Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, "not new feel-good laws that are impossible to enforce."

Chris Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. You can send him an email here.  Top of page






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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.