Governor signs legislation to regulate video game industry

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill on Oct. 7 that will regulate the sale and rental of mature-rated video games to minors. The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2006, would subject retailers up to a $1,000 fine for a violation.

Opponents of Assembly Bill 1179 cited the limitations it places on distributing First Amendment-protected material as unconstitutional, and voiced concern that retailers are now legally obligated to safeguard children, a role traditionally reserved for parents.

“The bill will limit the sale of video games differently from books, movies and magazines, which are done on a self-regulatory basis,” said Dan Hewitt, a spokesperson for the Electronic Software Association. “All we’re asking is to be treated the same way and continue with the self-regulatory measures. All this bill really does is circumvent the role of parents.”

Hewitt said the ESA plans to file suit to prevent the law from being enforced.

AB 1179, sponsored by Assemblymember Leland Yee, D–12th District, is similar to legislation signed into law by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich last year. Both bills received wide bipartisan support when they passed through their respective state legislatures.

According to the bill’s language, retailers will be required to label the games with a white sticker no smaller than two inches by two inches that identifies the material as “adults-only.”

“It will be enforced by the (state) attorney general and local law enforcement agencies, just as alcohol and tobacco sales are enforced,” said Adam Keigwin, press secretary for Yee.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a self-regulating industry body, regulates video game content and assigns appropriate ratings. The ESRB is similar to the Motion Picture Association of America, which produces movie ratings.

Drew Pletcher, senior screenwriting major at CSUN, said he thinks retailers are already doing a good job keeping mature-rated material out of the hands of minors and adults alike.

While trying to purchase the recently released documentary “Inside Deep Throat” from the Circuit City in Northridge, Pletcher said that a clerk and store manager intervened to prevent the sale of the NC-17 movie that was displayed on a store shelf.

After he was able to find it listed online on Circuit City’s website, Pletcher said he e-mailed the company’s customer service department with a complaint because of the seemingly contradictory sales practice.

“I took my business elsewhere,” Pletcher said.

Amanda Tate, a spokesperson for Circuit City, said that even though mature-rated video games and movies are some of the most popular titles, the store chain has always employed voluntary guidelines that prohibit the sale of adults-only material to minors and NC-17 movies to adults.

“It’s possible a vendor packaged it in with other movies and it just wasn’t caught,” Tate said. “We only carry up to R-rated movies.”

Tate said Circuit City supports the voluntary ratings system because it helps parents make informed decisions. She said the retail store adopted the policy to help parents, but not to take the place of parents, and will comply with whatever law is put into place.

In Illinois, the Safe Games Act that was signed into law in July 2005 by Blagojevich passed constitutional muster because of the widely held opinion that it was more a public safety issue than a constitutional one, a governor’s spokesperson said.

“The framers in other municipalities and states weren’t able to prove video games harmed children psychologically,” said Gerardo Cardenas, the governor’s press secretary in Chicago. “We have Harvard research that proves exposure has detrimental impact to the psychological development of a child.”

Cardenas said that under the Safe Games Act, the sale and rental of mature-rated material is not prohibited, but retailers can be fined for not following strict guidelines.

Retailers are required to develop ratings signage that is clearly understandable to minors and post them in a store. The Illinois Department of Revenue enforces the law just like alcohol and tobacco sales, he said.

“Retailers have the responsibility to make sure mature-rated rentals aren’t available for kids,” Cardenas said. “It’s sad that retailers are more interested in their bottom line than the health of children.”

After the Safe Games Act was signed into law, the Electronic Software Association and the Video Software Dealers Association filed a lawsuit to prevent the state of Illinois from enforcing the law on the grounds that it limits constitutionally protected free speech.

Julio Morales can be reached at julio.morales.605@csun.edu.