December 22, 2005

Court Blocks Calif. Video Game Sales Restriction

By Lisa Baertlein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A federal judge has blocked a California law that would have made it illegal to sell or rent violent video games to minors, saying he doubted whether such sales could be banned even if the games were proved to cause violent behavior among children.

The preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law comes amid a political and cultural war over the content of video games, which last year accounted for $7.3 billion in U.S. sales and rivaled Hollywood box office receipts.

A week ago, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton spearheaded federal legislation aimed at prohibiting the sale of violent or sexually explicit video games to minors, saying the industry's self-rating system was being inadequately enforced.

But in his ruling issued on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte sided with the video game industry, as other federal and state judges have in prior cases.

The Video Software Dealers Association and the Entertainment Software Association, acting on behalf of video game merchants and publishers, had challenged the proposed California law, which would have imposed civil penalties of up to $1,000 for each violation.

"For the sixth time in five years, Federal courts have now blocked or struck down these state and local laws seeking to regulate the sale of games to minors based on their content, and none have upheld such statutes," said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the ESA, referring to rulings in Illinois, Michigan and elsewhere.

Whyte, who sits on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, said in his ruling that the ESA and the VSDA "have shown they are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the Act violates the First Amendment, or at least that serious questions are raised."

The ruling discussed several violent games, including "Postal II" in which players have the opportunity to shoot, decapitate or urinate on characters such as police officers or school girls.

Some researchers have claimed a link between violent video games and violent behavior in youth. Previous U.S. court rulings on laws aimed at restricting game sales have questioned whether such studies have established true cause and effect.

But Whyte said: "It is uncertain that even if a causal link exists between violent video games and violent behavior, the First Amendment allows a state to restrict access to violent video games, even for those under eighteen years of age."

Many video games that contain violent content carry ratings of "Mature 17+" by the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

That rating agency and video game makers have been under fire since this summer, when game publisher Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. pulled its blockbuster title "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" from store shelves following complaints over the discovery of sex scenes that could be unlocked and viewed with a downloaded program.