Later this summer, Illinois is expected to become the first state in the union where selling "Grand Theft Auto" to a kid will be a crime.
Violent video games — a concern for parents and politicians from the eras of "Space Invaders" and "Mortal Kombat" to now — will join cigarettes and alcohol as substances unlawful to sell to minors.
"Some of these games are practically pornography," said Rebecca Rausch, a spokesperson for Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. The Illinois bill, which passed the legislature last month and is expected to be signed into law this summer, would ban the sale of "violent" and "sexually explicit" games to anyone under 18; it would also require retailers to attach warning labels to such games and face fines if they fail to do so. Selling a banned game would net a $1,000 fine (see "Illinois Governor Wants To Keep 'GTA,' 'Halo 2' Out Of Kids' Hands").
The video-game industry, rallying around the issues of free speech and parental accountability, is no fan of the bill. "This is the sort of hysteria that surrounded rock and roll in the '50s," said Gail Markels, general counsel for the Entertainment Software Association, the gaming industry's Washington, D.C.-based trade group. "It's an unknown and has to be regulated."
Markels has represented the ESA in three successful efforts in the last three years to strike down laws similar to the Illinois bill in St. Louis, Indianapolis and the state of Washington. She and other opponents of such laws said the bans were proven to "chill speech" by restricting the products retailers could be confident in selling without fear of prosecution.
Markels also noted that other forms of entertainment aren't targeted for such bans. "It doesn't make sense to treat a video game on 'Lord of the Rings' differently from a movie on 'Lord of the Rings' and a book on 'Lord of the Rings,' " she said.
But Rausch says video games need to be singled out because the games industry isn't doing its job. Comparing movie ratings to those of games, she said, "They both have a system of self-regulation. The difference is the movie industry has made it work." Supporters of the Illinois bill and similar legislation in the works in Michigan say kids have all too easy a time purchasing games rated M (for "mature") by the Entertainment Software Rating Board ratings system, the current industry standard. What's more, she noted, "In video games, you're the one doing the killing or doing the stripping or whatever."
Concerns about violent video games are on the rise this year. Dennis McCauley, a reporter for The Philadelphia Daily News who recently started the blog gamespolitics.com and has been tracking bills like the one in Illinois, said the increase is a sign of video games' increasing relevance to politics, not just in America but abroad. According to his blog, a violent video-game ban is on the verge of taking effect in Japan. Closer to home, he said, North Carolina is working on a bill similar to the one in Illinois. A California version of the bill was shelved late last week.
In March, McCauley linked to comments from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who signaled her intention to police "Grand Theft Auto" by saying in a speech that the game is part of a "silent epidemic of media desensitization that teaches kids it's OK to diss people because they are a woman, they're a different color or they're from a different place."
McCauley said one of his problems with the Illinois law is its definition of violent video games as those that focus on "human-on-human" violence. According to the bill, a violent game isn't necessarily the same thing as an M-rated game. A "violent" game is one that features "human-on-human" violence, "including but not limited to depictions of death, dismemberment, amputation, maiming, disfigurement, mutilation of body parts, or rape." McCauley said the definition is sure to confuse the retailers who are liable for selling banned games. "There's human-on-human violence in 'Battlefield 1942,' but it's not bloody or gory," he said. "The Illinois bill would make that subject to legislation. But you can have an extremely violent game with aliens being blown up into goo, and that doesn't seem to be covered."
Rausch, the Illinois governor's spokesperson, said alien shooting is indeed not the government's chief concern. "When you look at human-on-alien violence, it's certainly not as real as a teenager trying to kill a cop or rape a woman."
Whether the Illinois bill is too restrictive of free speech or too confusing for retailers to actually apply, the games industry is expected to put up a fight. Markels said that, as a parent, she also personally doesn't relate to Illinois-style bans. "People like to blame something," she said. "But what offends me may not offend someone else. I don't think government should be in the business [of deciding], 'This isn't appropriate to kids.' "
Rausch said the governor's office has new Harvard-backed research that attests to video games' harmful effects on kids and strengthens their case. She said a new law was needed and will hold up where others failed: "We have what we need to withstand a challenge."