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Illinois video game law challenged in court

As game makers sue to overturn a law restricting violent video games, politicians vote for an investigation of the "Grand Theft Auto" sex flap.

A new Illinois law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors is unconstitutional, software makers and resellers asserted in a lawsuit filed on Monday.

The suit, filed in federal court in Chicago, represents the latest round in a national debate over whether--or how--the plots and story lines in video games should be government-regulated.

The court challenge comes on the same day the U.S. House of Representatives voted 355-21 to ask for a formal investigation of whether Take-Two Interactive Software deceptively sought to avoid an adults-only rating for its "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." The game, which has been at the center of a controversy involving hidden sex content, got upgraded to a more stringent rating last week.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, has heralded the state law as a way to help parents police what games their children may buy or rent. "Parents today are up against a multibillion dollar industry...that peddles violent and sexually explicit video games to children," Blagojevich said when signing the bill earlier on Monday.

Because Blagojevich's signature was expected, industry groups including the Entertainment Software Association and the Video Software Dealers Association had readied their lawsuit well in advance. Their court documents follow traditional First Amendment themes, arguing that video games are protected by the same venerable constitutional principles that shield books and newspapers from intrusive government regulation.

"Like the best of literature, the story lines often involve familiar themes such as good versus evil, triumph over adversity, struggle against corrupt governments and rulers, and/or quest for adventure," the 23-page complaint says. "Expression in other media, such as movies and books, draws thematic ideas directly from video games."

The Illinois law, HB4023, prohibits the distribution of violent or "harmful" sex-themed video games to anyone under 18 years old. Violent is defined as "human-on-human violence," and violations are punished as misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the circumstances.

A 2001 decision by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals--which is binding on Illinois courts--could aid Monday's lawsuit.

In that decision, written by libertarian-leaning judge Richard Posner, the appeals court noted examples of violence in literature from "The Odyssey" to Frankenstein and Grimm's fairy tales. "To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it," Posner wrote.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reached a similar conclusion when striking down a Missouri law restricting the sale of "graphically violent" video games, and last year a federal judge in Washington state tossed out a law penalizing the distribution of games to minors in which harm may come to a "public law enforcement officer."