California lawmaker unveils new game legislation

Leland Yee proposes a more focused, narrowly written bill as he seeks to ban the sale of graphically violent games to children under 17.

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California assemblyman Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill this week that would make it illegal for retailers in the state to sell or rent violent games to children under 17. In addition, the law would require such games to bear a label that reads, "This game may not be sold to anyone under 17 years of age."

Last year, Yee made his first attempt to control minors' access to violent video games. That bill was defeated by the California Assembly's Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism, and Internet Media, and never made it to the assembly floor. Another Yee bill, which mandated prominent retail signs explaining the Entertainment Software Ratings Board's rating system, was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last fall.

Yee's initial bill (from 2004) prohibiting game sales sought to classify violent games among other substances considered dangerous to minors, such as cigarettes, alcohol, and pornography. This time, his proposed law, AB 450, seeks a straightforward ban on youth access to games with graphic depictions of violence, especially when it appears to be committed "without conscience, pity, or empathy," according to the bill's text. Curiously, the ban would not apply to games where "violence occurs as a result of simultaneous competition between two or more players in which the game's violence may be committed only against characters...controlled by other players."

A practicing child psychologist, Yee has argued that violent video games cause greater psychological damage to developing minds than to those of adults. "The health threat involved with kids playing such games is equivalent to smoking cigarettes," said Jim Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media, in a statement released by Yee this week. "We need to stop marketing and sales of these games to protect their future."

Yee said that more violent games, and more games depicting realistic violence, have been introduced since his first bill came along. He cited Manhunt and JFK Reloaded as examples, adding his belief that games can do greater harm than films. "Unlike movies where you passively watch violence, in a video game, you are the active participant and making decisions on who to stab, maim, burn, or kill," Yee said in his statement. "These games serve as learning tools that have a dramatic impact on our children."

Earlier this week, the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association released a statement rejecting Yee's new bill, calling it a "vain effort for local politicians to garner some perceived moral high ground." Many of IEMA's member merchants--which include major retailers from Best Buy to Wal-Mart--voluntarily agreed in December 2003 to begin checking young game buyers' ID cards and to post signs explaining the game ratings.

Lawmakers in Indiana, Missouri, and the state of Washington have proposed laws similar to Yee's, but courts in those states have blocked the bills, saying they violate the free-speech rights of game publishers. Measures are pending in other states.

AB 450 is tentatively scheduled for its first committee hearing March 18.

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