NEW YORK – A California congressman is fighting to make it tougher for kids to get their hands on video games dripping with blood, guts and violent crimes.
Rep. Joe Baca is afraid the industry's self-imposed games ratings system isn't working and wants to make it a federal offense to sell or rent graphically violent games to minors. He wants to make sure children 17 and under aren't able to buy games depicting murder, rape, prostitution, illegal drug use, carjackings, assault, decapitation and dismemberment.
"This is about responsibility and protecting our children from video games' sex and violence," Baca, a Democrat, said in a telephone interview.
His bill, H.R. 4645, would punish retailers who fail to enforce the video games’ ratings system — slapping them with fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 and possible jail time for the third offense.
But the proposed legislation has drawn ire from First Amendment advocates and video game industry representatives who say it's overkill.
"This is a bill that is clearly unconstitutional and seeks to substitute government regulation and bureaucracy for decisions best left to parents," Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, said in a statement.
The videos that have worried legislators and some parents are explicitly violent ones like "Grand Theft Auto III," published by Rockstar Games, in which players pretend to be criminals who steal cars, go to prostitutes and assault police and senior citizens. The game has an M rating — meaning it is deemed suitable only for those 17 and older.
Others, like the riot-filled "State of Emergency" and the urban crime-ridden "Max Payne," also caught Baca's attention. "A policy should be in place for any games rated "Mature" and "Adults Only," he said.
But the video game industry disagrees, saying the extensive ratings system it has implemented is enough. For years, the industry has had a ratings system in place, similar to the one used by the motion picture industry.
Games are rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) with one of the following labels: "EC" for "Early Childhood," "K-A" for "Kids to Adults," "E" for "Everyone," "T" for "Teen," "M" for "Mature," "AO" for "Adults Only" and "RP" for "Rating Pending."
"We really feel that's doing the job," said Beth Llewelyn, director of corporate affairs at Nintendo of America. "The responsibility may lie with the parents to recognize what is out there. They have to make sure the content is appropriate."
The proposed federal legislation, according to Llewelyn, is "going overboard."
Lowenstein cited Federal Trade Commission statistics that have found adults are involved in buying or renting video games more than 80 percent of the time.
"When kids get M-rated games, it's usually with their parents' knowledge," he said. "There simply is no epidemic of children buying violent games."
Baca wants retailers to ask for ID from people buying or renting adult games, much as movie ticket-takers do for R- and X-rated films. But Lowenstein and others in the industry say that's already happening.
"Leading retailers are actively implementing systems, with the strong support of the IDSA, to restrict the sale of M-rated games to minors," he said.
Still, many stores aren't enforcing the games ratings system, according to Baca.
"Some are doing it, and I commend those," he said. "But others have no policy in place. It's about profit, money. It's a $59 billion industry."
Baca has rallied 34 members of the House of Representatives to sign the legislation he introduced. But the bill's future is far from clear.
Legislation requiring minors to have parental consent when they buy explicitly violent video games was deemed unconstitutional last year in an Indianapolis federal court. But in April, a similar law was upheld by a federal court in St. Louis.