When games get gory

Do violent video games make kids mean? Some lawmakers think so, and they're stepping up efforts to ban sales to juveniles. Images: Hot-button games

A key sequence in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" requires the player to steal a police SWAT team tank, machine gun rival gang members and incinerate employees of a rival crack dealer--all acts covered by the "Mature" rating prominently displayed on each copy of the video game.

That rating, however, hasn't stopped countless underage players from picking up virtual Uzis in the latest GTA installment, the top-selling video game of 2004. Advocacy groups say exposure to such material makes kids more aggressive and desensitizes them to real-world violence, an argument that's winning increasing support from state and local lawmakers looking to ban the sale of such games to minors.

The issue's become a political football, with lawmakers and advocacy groups arguing that the government must protect children if the game industry can't or won't. The debate only gets more confusing with publicity surrounding cases such as that of Devin Thompson, an Alabama teen who claims that a previous version of "" inspired him to kill three police officers when he was 16.


What's new:
The debate over whether violent video games influence kids' real-world behavior is getting increasing attention as more and more lawmakers seek to shield minors from the guts and gore.

Bottom line:
Are kids apt to act out the shooting and maiming they see in video games? If so, who bears ultimate responsibility for limiting minors' access--parents, game makers, the government, or all three?

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The families of two of the slain officers sued "Grand Theft Auto" publisher Take-Two Interactive Software and several other parties last week, claiming the game "trained and motivated" Thompson to pull the trigger. Thompson reportedly told police, "Life is a video game. You've got to die sometime," before he opened fire.

Legislatures in at least six states are considering new proposals that would make it a crime to sell mature games to children, despite the failure of previous legislation to pass judicial scrutiny. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, lobbied for his version in a recent State of the State address, in which he equated violent games with pornography, liquor and cigarettes. "We shouldn't allow them (children) to go to stores and buy video games that teach them to do the very things we put people in jail for," he said. "Buying these games should be up to parents--not kids."

And San Francisco Assemblyman Leland Yee, also a Democrat, introduced a new bill in Sacramento last week that seeks to impose a fine of up to $1,000 on individuals who sells violent video games to anyone under 17 years of age.

Game publishers say they already have a ratings system that gives parents all the information they need while allowing game makers to exercise their free-speech rights.

"I have a 14-year-old son, and it's part of my job as a parent to find out what's in a certain movie or TV program or game," said Gail Markels, senior vice president and general counsel for game industry trade group Entertainment Software Association. "I don't need a law being passed that mandates that."

Thompson, the teen who inspired the lawsuit against Take-Two, got hold of "Grand Theft Auto" well before the recommended age of 17 prominently displayed on the game as part of a ratings system the game industry set up in 1994 to address concerns about increasingly realistic depictions of violence and other objectionable content in games. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) assigns each game submitted to it a suitability rating--ranging from "E" for "everyone" to "A" for "adult--with additional details on why the game received its rating. The list for "GTA: San Andreas" includes: "blood and gore," "intense violence," "use of drugs" and "strong sexual content."

Most retailers, including the chain stores that account for the bulk of game sales, say they restrict sales based on the ratings. A 14-year-old who wants the "Mature"-rated "GTA: San Andreas," for example, presumably would need a parent to buy it for him.

But enforcement of policies varies widely. New York City Councilman Eric Gioia said that in his own recent investigation of New York stores, he found no significant barriers

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