Utah, Iowa consider game regulations

After setbacks for similar efforts around the country, lawmakers look to tackle the issue from new angles.

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In a political climate rife with partisan rancor, there are few issues that unite America's elected leaders as effectively as regulation of video games. Evidence of that can readily be found today, as GamePolitics has pointed out that a Utah Republican and an Iowa Democrat have joined the growing list of state politicians calling for the regulation of violent games.

Earlier this month, Utah's Representative David L. Hogue introduced a bill that would add "inappropriate violence" to the list of what makes something harmful to minors, and thus subject to regulation. If passed, Utah HB 257 would make it illegal for anyone to show or give games, movies, or any media containing inappropriate violence to minors. Under the state's current law for exposing minors to harmful material, each separate offense would be a third-degree felony with a minimum fine of $300 and imprisonment (with no option for a suspended sentence) of at least 14 days. If someone has already been convicted under the law once, however, the crime is then a second-degree felony with a minimum fine of $5,000 and at least a year in jail, again with no possibility of a suspended sentence.

With such stiff punishment for exposing children to violent content, distinguishing appropriate violence from inappropriate violence becomes essential. Hogue's bill defines inappropriate violence as "any description or representation, in any form, of violence when it:

"(a) is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable material for minors;
(b) taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors;
(c) is glamorized or gratuitous;
(d) is graphic violence used to shock or stimulate;
(e) is graphic violence that is not contextually relevant to the material;
(f) is so pervasive that it serves as the thread holding the plot of the material together;
(g) trivializes the serious nature of realistic violence;
(h) does not demonstrate the consequences or effects of realistic violence;
(i) uses brutal weapons designed to inflict the maximum amount of pain and damage;
(j) endorses or glorifies torture or excessive weaponry; or
(k) depicts lead characters who resort to violence freely."

Recent laws that would prevent selling violent games to minors but would still allow parents and legal guardians to buy the games for them have either been blocked from taking effect or declared unconstitutional as a violation of freedom of speech in Michigan, California, and Illinois. Despite this, a legislative review note at the end of HB 257 suggests that, "Based on a limited legal review, this legislation has not been determined to have a high probability of being held unconstitutional."

Over in Iowa, Democratic state Representative Janet Petersen is the lead sponsor on House File 2104, which was introduced yesterday. Petersen's proposed legislation appears to be based in large part on the stalled California gaming regulation law in that it simply makes it illegal to sell or rent violent and sexually explicit games to minors, with fines levied for retailers caught breaking the law. Games that fall under the scope of the law would have to be marked with a 2-inch-by-2-inch sticker of a white "18" outlined in black.

House File 2104 does have a few unique traits, however. For one, cashiers who rent or sell the games to a minor will be committing a simple misdemeanor, whereas the California bill specifically exempts employees with no ownership interest in a company from punishment.

And while the legislation's classification of what constitutes a violent or sexually explicit game does not take into account the ratings of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, employees will not have committed a crime if the game in question was rated EC for Early Childhood, E for Everyone, E10+ for Everyone 10 and Older, or T for Teen by the ESRB. There is no such defense for the retailers themselves, however.

Finally, House File 2104 would require stores with electronic scanners at the registers to prompt employees to ask for ID when someone purchases a violent or sexually explicit game, and would specifically bar the sale of such titles through self-checkout terminals.

In the same way that both Republicans and Democrats have espoused gaming legislation, the issue is being debated on both the state and federal level. Last year, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic junior US senator from New York, introduced the Family Entertainment Protection Act (FEPA). Based largely on the existing California legislation, the act would restrict the sale of violent and sexually explicit games to minors and authorize the Federal Trade Commission to examine the industry's efforts to keep such games out of kids' hands as well as the accuracy of the ratings process each year. The FEPA is currently under consideration by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

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