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Illinois Seeks to Curb Explicit Video Games

Gov. Rod Blagojevich proposes bills to make it illegal to sell or rent graphic titles to minors.

December 16, 2004|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — This holiday season, children searching for the latest video game titles could walk into a store and buy "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" -- which lets players kill cops, steal cars, solicit prostitutes and then beat them to get their money back. Or kids could pick up a copy of "The Guy Game" and answer questions to get busty female characters to slip out of their clothes or engage in topless rope jumping and sack races.

Today, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich will formally propose the nation's first statewide legislation to regulate the sale and rental of these games, propelling Illinois into a national debate over what to do about this burgeoning and controversial form of entertainment.

The two bills he is promoting would make it a crime for retailers to rent or sell such violent or sexually graphic material to minors, policing video games in much the same way as cigarettes and alcohol.

They also would target the powerful video game industry, which pulled in $10 billion in personal computer and console game sales in the U.S. last year -- revenue that rivaled Hollywood's box office numbers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Video game -- An article in Thursday's Section A about Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's proposing legislation to regulate the sale and rental of violent and sexually graphic video games misstated the title of "Rumble Roses," a wrestling game, as "Rumble Rose."

"Soldiers heading to Iraq use simulations like today's video games in order to prepare for war," Blagojevich said in a statement. "That may all be OK if you're a mature adult or a soldier training to fight, but is that really necessary for a 10-year-old child?"

If approved by the Illinois Legislature -- and upheld in the courts -- the bills would make it a misdemeanor to sell or rent sexually graphic or violent games to anyone younger than 18, punishable by as much as one year in prison and a $5,000 fine per offense.

Retailers would be forced to label the games in a similar way to the "Parental Advisory" warning used on music CDs; and stores would have to post signs explaining the video game industry's rating system. Those that don't could be fined $1,000 for the first three violations, and $5,000 for every subsequent violation.

And Illinois would create its own definition of what qualified as violent or sexually graphic -- including titles "realistically depicting human-on-human violence" or realistic images of human genitalia, the governor said.

The Legislature will consider the bills when lawmakers begin their new session in mid-January.

The proposals have been met with disbelief by retailers and video game makers, who long have pushed for self-regulation of their industry.

Most video game makers now use ratings established by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a New York-based, industry-sponsored group that taps parents, consumers and retired schoolteachers to grade games. The system rates games E, acceptable for everyone age 6 and older; T for teens; and M for mature audiences 17 or older.

"Every time there's a major new release, or a new release of technology, you see new attempts to regulate this industry," said Sean Bersell, spokesman for the Video Software Dealers Assn., the trade group for the home-video market that represents retailers and distributors of video games.

But government officials say most parents aren't aware of the ratings, and few retailers consistently enforce them. In July 2003, a report by the Federal Trade Commission found that 78% of children ages 13 though 16 could easily buy games rated for mature audiences.

"Trusting the game industry to police itself is akin to trusting tobacco companies to regulate themselves," said James Steyer, chief executive of the nonprofit watchdog group Common Sense Media. "The retailers and manufacturers have been saying for years, 'Trust us; we'll take care of all this.' And look where we are now."

This year's holiday offerings include some of the industry's most cutting-edge work -- and, according to Blagojevich's office, some of its goriest and most obscene.

Blagojevich pointed to the violence in "Doom 3," which pits Marines against a host of zombies and monsters on Mars; and "Manhunt," in which the player uses machetes, axes and meat cleavers to disembowel enemies. He also highlighted the sexual nature of "Rumble Rose," which features a cast of characters that includes a disciplinarian schoolteacher, a naughty schoolgirl and a sadomasochistic slave.

Until recently, there have been few self-policing policies in place among retailers, said Hal Halpin, president of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Assn., which represents 29 of the top 30 retailers that sell games.

"When the FTC report came out, about a third of the retailers had some sort of age-monitoring system," Halpin said. "Some were doing well and others weren't."

In December 2003, the association announced that all of its members would institute internal programs to curtail the sale of M-rated titles to kids. The program -- being used by retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. -- finished rolling out this month.

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