A battle over sale of violent video games
Illinois governor's push to prevent sales to minors pits civil liberties against desire to protect children.
When Francisco Rosa and his friends play video games, their favorites are the most violent: "Grand Theft Auto" - in which they steal cars, shoot police officers, and beat up prostitutes - and "Killzone."Skip to next paragraph
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All of the games are rated "M," for mature, but Francisco, who is 16, defends them, noting that they have the best graphics and technology.
If Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has his way, however, it could soon get tougher for boys like Francisco to buy such games.
During a week in which millions of kids woke up to video games under the tree, debate here has been raging over many games' content, and who should control access to them. The governor's proposal, which would make selling violent or sexual games to anyone under 18 a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison or a $5,000 fine, is just the latest maneuver in an ongoing battle among kids, parents, the game industry, civil libertarians, and politicians eager for parents' support.
It's a law, say experts, that would likely run afoul of the First Amendment. But it raises pressing issues: Are some games unsuitable for kids? And whose responsibility is it to monitor access?
"Parents get a double message from the industry," says Blois Olson of the National Institute on Media and the Family. "It gives ratings, but sometimes in the same sentence it says these games have no effect on children." He stops short, though, of supporting laws that regulate sales, calling instead for independent ratings, better enforcement, and education for parents.
The current game-rating system is similar to the one for movies. And, like the movie guidelines, it's self-regulated. A store can card teenagers, and many refuse to sell M-rated games to anyone under 17, but no law requires them to abide by the rule - and critics cite lax enforcement
"Games are more realistic than they ever have been. Something like "Pac-Man" can't even be compared to games that are 3-D, where the person controlling the joystick is behind the goggles of a fighter," says Abby Ottenhoff, a spokesperson for Governor Blagojevich. "As a society, there are certain things we have decided universally aren't appropriate for kids - alcohol, cigarettes, pornography. The governor believes these games are similar to those things and that the negative impact they can have on kids is real."
The problem with that analogy, say critics, is that items like cigarettes and alcohol don't fall under free-speech protection. Similar attempts to regulate video-game sales - including laws in Indianapolis, St. Louis County, and Washington State, have been struck down by courts as recently as July.
One problem is in defining the forbidden material, says Clay Calvert, codirector of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Pennsylvania State University. Blagojevich's law would define violent games as, in part, "those realistically depicting human-on-human violence...."
"But what does the term 'realistic' mean, and how realistic does it have to be?" asks Professor Calvert. "When a term is vague, it can have a chilling effect on freedom of speech," and courts won't allow it to stand.
The governor hopes to defend the proposal with studies, such as ones from Iowa State University and Stanford, that link video-game use to aggression. But such research generally shows correlation, not causation, and the law limits its interest to causation.