Commentary > Game Over
Wash. to ban 'violent' game sales
State law will levy $500 fines to anyone selling Grand Theft Auto to children.
April 18, 2003: 1:00 PM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The legal tango between the gaming industry and the government has taken a step in the government's direction. Washington State's senate passed a bill Thursday that would institute a fine of up to $500 to retail employees who sell violent video games to anyone under the age of 17.

The bill passed the Senate 47-7 and is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Gary Locke. Rather than targeting games based on their ratings, the bill specifically mentions those that depict violence against law enforcement officials.

This would put the industry's top selling title, "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," square in the bill's crosshairs. As of late February, the PlayStation 2 version of the game had sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide pocketing somewhere in the neighborhood of $425 million for publisher Take Two Interactive Software (TTWO: Research, Estimates). A PC version of the game will be released May 14.

Gaming industry opponents cheered the ruling.

"Today the good guys won one," said Florida attorney Jack Thompson in an e-mail to his supporters.

Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association (the gaming industry trade group), denounced the bill, saying, "We feel that government-mandated regulations to limit access to entertainment products are both misguided and unconstitutional. No laws restrict the sale of movies, music or books, even though some of these products may not be suitable for children. There is no basis for treating video games any differently than other forms of popular entertainment."

"GTA: Vice City" would be directly impacted by the Washington law.

While the IDSA won't comment on its plans, a lawsuit attempting to overturn the bill is likely. And one legal analyst said it might have a good chance of success.

Because it specifically focuses on "games depicting violence against public law enforcement officials" rather than using the established rating system, the bill opens up questions of interpretation.

"At first blush, this statute looks vague," said Damon Watson, an attorney who focuses on the video game and interactive entertainment industry for Bryan Cave in Los Angeles.

"I think it could be subject to challenge. Section four [which defines violence as a game that contains realistic or photographic-like depictions of aggressive content] might save it, but it doesn't use any of the traditional standards that the Supreme Court has handed down. ...It seems they picked an arbitrary word and standard, and they're trying to run with it."

While the Washington state bill is certainly the furthest any legal restriction has progressed, it's not the only one in the works.

In Washington, D.C., Sen. Joe Baca, D.-Calif., has resurrected his "Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act" for the second year. The bill would make it a federal crime to sell or rent "adult video games" to minors with proposed fines of $5,000 or more. Re-introduced to the House on Feb. 11, the bill is currently in the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. The 2002 bill of the same name died in that committee.

At the same time, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D.-Conn., who has been a long-time critic of the video game industry, plans to introduce legislation to fund a study on how exposure to different types of media affects players. When proposing the legislation at a research symposium, the presidential candidate made sure to single out video games.

"We are particularly interested in the impact of interactive media on our kids, now that the Internet has become such a staple and video games sales have surpassed movie box office receipts," Lieberman said. "For one thing, we should know whether games like Grand Theft Auto that celebrate violence against women, beyond being sick and offensive, are actually leading to more violence against women."

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As of Friday morning, though, no bill has been introduced to the Senate.

Meanwhile, the gaming industry is currently awaiting a ruling from the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on its attempt to overturn a St. Louis law, which bans the sale of violent video games to minors. A lower court upheld those restrictions a year ago.

Government regulation of the gaming industry is a topic I've explored several times in this column and one which usually generates a flood of reader mail. Most CNN/Money readers seem to feel it's the parents' responsibility, not the government's, to decide what games children are playing. In its statement, the IDSA echoed these thoughts.

"The bill simply ignores the role and responsibility of parents to monitor the games their children play, and the federal government's own data showing that parents are involved in the purchase and rental of games more than eight out of 10 times," the Digital Software Association's Lowenstein said.

"Substituting the government's judgment for parental supervision in deciding which games are appropriate for children, as this bill mandates, is both ineffective and has been proven patently unconstitutional in courts across the country."  Top of page

Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.

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