Minnesota lawmakers say 'game over' to kids' violent games

By The Associated Press
05.10.03

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Voicing concern that violent video games might encourage real-life violence, the state Senate voted May 8 to make it illegal for children under 17 to rent or buy them.

The bill applies to games rated M for Mature audiences or AO for Adults Only under the industry’s own rating system.

The effort would make it a petty misdemeanor — with a maximum $25 fine — for children to rent or buy the games, though it would remain legal for stores to rent or sell them to them.

The measure passed 53-8.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Sandy Pappas of St. Paul, said she’s especially offended by games featuring violence against women and police officers.

“These are very detrimental to the psychological well-being of our youth,” Pappas said.

She and others singled out one game, the PlayStation 2 title “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” for special scorn.

The popular game allows a player to roam a city hijacking vehicles, beating police officers and having sex with prostitutes.

It’s unlikely the bill will become law this year. There’s a week and a half left in the session and the House hasn’t taken action on a companion bill.

But the discussion elicited rare alliances, at one point joining feminists and family-values conservatives against civil-libertarian Democrats and business-friendly Republicans.

Some questioned whether the bill would violate constitutional free-speech rights.

“We’re going to take a bunch of 14, 15 and 16-year-olds,” Democratic Sen. Steve Kelley of Hopkins said, “and we’re going to turn them into criminals. I don’t think that’s something we want to do.”

“We’re talking hard core, triple-x material,” responded Sen. Michele Bachmann of Stillwater. “You want to tell me that people in this body would call this free speech?”

Kelley also chided his colleagues for punishing children who buy the games but not retailers who sell them. He said the approach is contrary to how the state regulates tobacco products.

In fact, in an odd bit of parliamentary action that coincided with aggressive opposition from lobbyists for retailers, the Senate first voted 32-30 to also punish the sellers.

But then Pappas backed a plan to strip the provision out, replacing it with a requirement that retailers post a sign warning about the penalties to children.

Sen. Satveer Chaudary, DFL-Fridley, said he found irony in the debate, recalling discussions over a new state law that loosens handgun permit regulations: “The Minnesota government believes that real guns promote safety, but video guns are unsafe.”

Gail Markels, general counsel and senior vice president of the trade group Interactive Digital Software Association, said no state has enacted such a law, though a related measure has passed the Washington state Legislature and is awaiting the governor’s signature there.

She said the industry would likely challenge any such law on constitutional grounds, noting that courts have held that governments can’t give an industry’s own rules the force of law.

Rather, she said, video-game ratings should be treated the same as movie ratings, which are enforced voluntarily by theaters.

But one store owner, Chris Janota of Media Exchange 123 in Woodbury, didn’t even know about the bill and expressed doubts about its potential effectiveness.

“More and more of this business is through the Internet so I don’t know how they’d enforce it,” he said. “If we have to enforce it, that’s fine with me.”