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Why Johnny Can’t Play

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and the governor of Illinois have come out swinging against ‘violent’ video games. And, once again, retailers, developers, and even some lawmakers are fighting back.
June 24, 2005

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) went for the heartstrings on June 20 when he held a press conference to announce his disdain for the soon-to-be-released video game 25 To Life. Among those surrounding the senator was Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, and Rose Nemorin, widow of a New York detective killed in the line of duty in 2003.

At issue is the game’s violent story line. In it, players decide whether they want to be a cop or a gangster. If they choose the latter, in some instances they may actually “kill” police officers. Schumer’s main contention is with the gangsters, such as Freeze, a recently released bad guy who, during the game’s missions, actively targets police and uses innocent bystanders as human shields in a bloody shooting spree.

For Senator Schumer, that kind of graphic and realistic violence is beyond the pale.

“Little Johnny should be learning how to read, not how to kill cops,” Schumer said in a press release. “The bottom line is that games that are aimed and marketed at kids shouldn’t desensitize them to death and destruction.”

Eidos, 25 to Life’s manufacturer, wouldn’t comment on Schumer’s remarks. But given the past success of titles such as the Grand Theft Auto franchise, it’s unlikely that the game, when it’s released in August, will be withheld from either the Microsoft Xbox or Sony Playstation 2 as a result of Schumer’s opposition.

As game companies develop more adult-themes games, though, a chorus of politicians and various non-government bodies are trying to stifle these developers, which may generate more debates about free speech.

Last month, the Illinois state legislature passed “Safe Games Illinois,” a bill sponsored by Governor Rod Blagojevich that would make it illegal to sell M-rated video games to anyone under the age of 17. Once the governor signs the bill into law, which should happen within 60 days, any retailer who sells an M-rated game to an underage consumer will be hit with a $1,000 fine. What’s more, inadequate signage in a store alerting consumers to the law will lead to a $500 fine for the retailer.

The Safe Games bill is just the latest attempt to legislate against video game violence. Last month in California, a similar bill, sponsored by San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Leland Yee, was narrowly defeated in committee. Yee has pledged to resurrect the bill, though. And other bills are in various stages of legislation in North Carolina, Georgia, and Washington DC.

Schumer, Blagojevich, and Yee join a long line of politicians who have spoken out against violence in video games over the years – and gained popular sympathy in the process.

Nevertheless, battles against video games have been largely won by the video game industry, as judges have ruled that banning such products based on their perceived affects violates free speech. The video game industry has implemented an age-appropriate rating system: E for everyone, T for teen, and M for mature. Similar to an R movie rating, an M rating for a video game means it’s not recommended for anyone under the age of 17.

But, for now, the ratings system has been voluntary. In other words, retailers aren’t financially liable if a minor gets his or her hands on an M-rated game.

“These efforts tell people that you can legislate along moral lines,” says Joseph Olin, president of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, a Los Angeles-based group that awards excellence in the video game industry. “That’s fundamentally against the Constitution.”

Such political criticism may not harm the game’s popularity or sales, though, according to one industry watcher.

“I’m not sure Schumer’s comments will compel a retailer not to carry a game,” says Schelley Olhava, an analyst with IDC. “Video game sales bring a lot of money to retailers. They’re a high margin product. There’s a reason Grand Theft Auto and these games have sold as well as they have: people want them.”

Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto 3 was an instant hit when it was released in 2001, amid a flurry of controversy.

Still, retailers don’t want to be forced to police their customers. As a result, this latest salvo has upset some retailers and video game creators, who vow to fight the Illinois bill and suppress any other bills currently winding their way through legislatures. “It’s an unfortunate example of politicized legislation,” says Hal Halpin, president of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association. “The issue has become a political football, and those involved appear to me more concerned with garnering fast votes and support than affecting change.”

In Illinois, video game retailers may not have to do anything more than sue the state to erase the law from the books: in every instance so far, when a state has attempted to pass such a law, it has been defeated in the courts. The Entertainment Software Association, a Washington, DC-based lobbying organization, has gone to court three times against similar state laws – and won each time.

So why are Senator Schumer and some states attempting another round of lawsuits? John Millner, a Republican state representative in Illinois – and one of the six legislators to vote against the bill (106 representatives voted in favor) – thinks he knows why.

“Politically, it would have been a great vote for me,” he says. “But in my conscience, I couldn’t vote for it. I asked my peers ‘How can you [vote for] this?’ They looked at me and said, ‘If I vote against it, there’s going to be a piece of mail going out against me, saying I’m in favor of these games.’”

Millner says he opposed the legislation because of concerns about its constitutionality, as well as the negative impact it could have on retailers across the state, many of whom, he argues, are small shops that can’t afford a $1,000 fine if a clerk makes a mistake.

“I don’t condemn the governor for doing this,” says Millner, who disagrees with the research cited by the governor’s office, saying violence-oriented games cause real-world crime. “But it’s our job as legislators to…tell him that we can’t do this.”

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