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Video games in Congress' crosshairs

House committee on consumer protection plans a public hearing to highlight violent and sexually explicit games.

The purported problem of violent and sexually explicit video games has resurfaced on politicians' agenda as the November election draws near.

A U.S. House of Representatives committee on consumer protection says it will hold a hearing on the topic later this month, with a focus on "informing parents and protecting children" from the alleged dangers of those types of games.

A committee schedule originally listed the event for next Wednesday. But that date has been postponed because of scheduling conflicts, Jack Seum, chief of staff for Rep. Cliff Stearns, the Florida Republican who chairs the panel, said on Friday.

Game bills in play

Bill No.Chief sponsorWhat it would doStatus
S. 2126Clinton (D)Bars sale or rental of "mature" video games to minorsstill in committee
S. 1902Lieberman (D)Orders Fed study on effects of "electronic media" on kidsapproved by committee
HR 4124Markey (D)Orders Fed study on effects of "electronic media" on kidsstill in committee
HR 5345Matheson (D)Bars sale or rental of "mature" video games to minorsstill in committee
HR 1145Baca (D) Requires study of computer game rating system and recommendations for new lawsstill in committee
H.RES.376Upton (R)Instructs FTC to investigate "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas"passed by House
S.RES.212 Brownback (R)Instructs FTC to investigate "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas"passed by Senate

Source: CNET News.com research

A witness list for the hearing, which the committee hopes to reschedule for June 14, had not been finalized by Friday, Seum said.

Representatives from the Entertainment Software Association, which lobbies for the video game industry, and the Entertainment Safety Ratings Board, which oversees the labeling of games, said the organizations expect to testify.

An ESA representative declined to comment on the group's planned testimony, except to say it views it "as an opportunity to talk about the tools available to parents," such as parental control technology.

For his part, Seum said that Stearns is not currently planning any additional legislation. "There's nothing we're planning to do immediately as a result of this hearing," he said.

There's hardly any shortage of video game proposals, with many already pending in Congress. Just last month, a little-noticed bill called the Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act was referred to Stearns' panel for consideration.

Introduced by Rep. Jim Matheson, a Utah Democrat, the proposal would make it illegal for anyone to sell, rent, or attempt to sell or rent video games rated "adults-only" to minors under age 18, or "mature" video games to anyone under age 17. The Federal Trade Commission would be permitted to levy fines of up to $5,000 per violation.

That approach is nearly identical to a bill unveiled last December by U.S. Senate Democrats Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman. They propose imposing fines or community service hours on any business that sells or rents video games with a "mature," "adults-only" or "ratings pending" tag to anyone under age 17. That measure has not yet gone up for debate.

Both longtime foes of the video game industry, Clinton and Lieberman have publicly lashed out against "graphic, violent and pornographic content" in video games. They were among those who pledged new action after a flap last summer over a sexually explicit scene embedded in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."

Earlier this year, the two politicians and a handful of other supporters secured a Senate committee's approval of a bill that would bankroll a sweeping study of the "impact of electronic media use." That measure, called the Children and Media Research Advancement Act, or CAMRA, does not propose any restrictions, but it is viewed as a way to justify new regulations down the road. An identical bill is pending in the House but has not yet proceeded to a vote.

If the experience of states that have attempted to enforce their own laws restricting violent and sexually explicit video games is any indicator, the federal proposals aren't likely to go far without legal challenges.

In April, a federal judge tossed out a Michigan law that criminalized the sale of violent video games to children under 17, deeming it a violation of the First Amendment's guarantees of free expression. During the past few years, federal courts have declared similar laws in California, Illinois and Washington--along with the cities of St. Louis and Indianapolis--to be unconstitutional.

That hasn't stopped other states from continuing to pass new laws. Just last week, the Oklahoma Legislature gave final approval to that would make it a crime to sell violent video games to anyone younger than 18. It heads next to the governor's desk.