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No ID, no video game?

Legislation before Congress would make it a federal crime to sell or rent to minors video games that depict sex and violence. Repeat offenders could face jail time.

A bill introduced in Congress last week would make it a federal crime to sell or rent violent video games to minors.

The Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act of 2002, introduced by Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., would apply to games that feature decapitation, amputation, killing of humans with lethal weapons or through hand-to-hand combat, rape, car-jackings, aggravated assault and other violent felonies. Twenty-one other representatives co-sponsored the bill, which was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

That list would place a slew of popular titles out of the reach of teenagers, some of the biggest consumers of the games. The top-selling video game in 2001, according to research firm NPD Group, was "Grand Theft Auto 3," in which players steal and wreck cars, commit contract killings and carry out other crimes. It has been banned in Australia.

"When kids play video games, they assume the identity of the characters in the game, and some of these characters are murderers, thieves, rapists, drug addicts and prostitutes," Baca said in a press release. "Do you really want your kids assuming the role of a mass murderer or a car-jacker while you are away at work?"

Violators of the act would be subject to fines of up to $1,000 for a first offense and up to $5,000, plus 90 days in jail, for multiple offenses.

Other branches of the government are looking into the issue of minors and video games. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is expected to release a report in June about sales and advertising to minors of games that have mature themes.

The issue hasn't gone unnoticed by video game creators. At a recent developers' conference, attendees agreed that the industry needs to do a better job of informing parents about the violent or mature content of games, although the issue of rating systems is still controversial. The Entertainment Software Rating Board assigns ratings for software titles, Web sites and online games, but participation by both game makers and stores is voluntary. An FTC study released in December found that 78 percent of stores allowed unaccompanied minors to purchase games that were rated for mature audiences only.

And state lawmakers in Georgia recently introduced legislation that makes it a crime to sell games depicting graphic violence to minors.

Courts have had mixed opinions about such laws. Baca's bill was introduced just days after a U.S. District Court in Missouri refused to invalidate a St. Louis ordinance that required parental consent to sell violent or sexually explicit games to minors. The St. Louis law was challenged by the Interactive Digital Software Association. A similar ordinance passed in Indianapolis was later overturned by a federal appeals court.