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US States Move to Restrict Sale of Violent Video Games

The voices on the radio are chilling.

"I shot a guy this morning," says one child, "then I caved his head in with a bat."

"I ran over this old lady," another confesses, "and she was still alive, so I just set her on fire."

"I broke into this house and killed everyone," admits a third youngster, "and then hid the bodies and went to soccer practice."

The three youths never did any of these things to real people. They were only describing some of the fantasy activities that video game players can engage in while playing such popular releases as Doom, Mortal Combat and Grand Theft Auto.

A group called Mothers Against Violence in America (MAVIA) commissioned the public service announcement that is being aired on radio stations across the state of Washington. The group wants to inform parents about violent video games, amid concern that they contribute to youth violence.

In 2002, nearly 78,000 violent-crime arrests in the United States involved suspects who were under the age of 18. Americans have been debating what role movies, music and other aspects of popular culture may play in the perpetuation of that violence. Now video games are under the microscope.

MAVIA founder Pamela Eakes says most parents don't know how violent some of these games are because, when they were teenagers, such games did not exist. "Parents just absolutely don't have the facility to sit down and play a video game because they did not learn it as a young child," says Ms. Eakes. "They remember playing Pac Man and Pong and Tetris. But these games are much more interactive, much more deliberately violent."

This past May, Washington state legislators banned the sale of violent video games to minors. But the law was thrown out two months later by a federal judge, who said the prohibition violated the right to freedom of speech guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The legal decision did not surprise Clay Calvert, co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Pennsylvania State University. He believes there was no way the law was ever going to withstand a constitutional challenge.

"To the extent that these video games do not involve obscenity or child pornography, two categories of speech which fall outside of the scope of the first amendment, then they are protected," Professor Calvert says. "These games focus on violent content, not sexual content, and to the extent that they focus on violent content, no matter how offensive it might be, it is protected by the First Amendment."

Despite the ruling, officials in the state of Illinois are hoping to have success where their colleagues in Washington did not. Governor Rod Blagojevich is pushing for a similar measure that would ban the sale of violent video games to minors. And he is prepared to answer any constitutional challenge.

"You have more leeway as a state to legislate on this if there's harm, actual harm to a child -- you know, like with cigarettes or tobacco," says Shelia Nix, senior policy advisor to the Illinois governor. "More recent studies out of Iowa State [University], and a few others right now, have started to show some actual brain problems with children who are exposed to excessively violent games for a long period of time."

The study conducted by researchers in Iowa found physical similarities between the brains of avid video gamers and the brains of combat soldiers. The study's authors, however, stipulated that they do not believe video games turn otherwise normal children into killers.

That sentiment is echoed by 18-year-old Kala Murrell, who has been playing Grand Theft Auto since she was 15. "I turned out okay," she says. "I don't have an urge to go out and fight people. Or, after playing this, I have no urge to go out and steal cars and chase people. It's no different than if you come home and you work out in a gym and, you know, you go punch the punching bag. I don't have any of that, so I just play this, and if I'm upset with school, it relaxes my mind."

The measure being advocated by the Illinois governor is facing some stiff opposition from the video game industry -- which points to a voluntary rating system it adopted in 1994 as proof that a law is not necessary. Under that system, violent games are clearly labeled as being appropriate for mature audiences only.

But last year, the Federal Trade Commission found that well over half of the teenagers who went to the register with a game rated M for mature were able to buy it. Officials in Illinois say that is because the industry is not doing a good enough job of policing itself -- and so it is up to lawmakers to take over the game.