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Video Games' Chaos Echoed In Streets, D.C. Leaders Say

Bill Seeks to Cut Youngsters' Exposure

By Eric M. Weiss and Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 4, 2005; Page A01

District political, religious and community leaders gathered at a Southeast Washington church yesterday to support a proposed ban on the sale of violent and sexually explicit video games to minors. They summed up their objections in a word: poison.

"Why are they selling this game to our children?" said Ronald Moten, a leader of Peaceaholics, which mentors troubled youths in the District and Maryland. He and others drew a direct line between the make-believe mayhem in such video games as Grand Theft Auto and the very real pain they see in their neighborhoods.

Grand Theft Auto 3 is part of video game series in which robbing, killing and intimidation are objectives. (Rockstar Games)

Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, answered questions about video game ratings and the industry.
D.C. Councilmember Adrian Fenty discussed proposed legislation that would ban the sale of violent games.
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The popular video games have become an equally popular target in city halls and statehouses nationwide. D.C. Council members and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) yesterday backed a bill that would prevent merchants from selling such games as the Grand Theft Auto series, Halo 2 and Mortal Kombat to minors. A store that violates the law could lose its business license and face a fine of as much as $10,000.

In Maryland, Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Price George's) introduced a bill that would subject vendors who sell or rent violent video games to minors to a fine of as much as $1,000 or six months in jail for each offense. Last year, Virginia legislators considered a bill that would have made the sale, rental, loan or commercial display of a video or computer game to a juvenile a misdemeanor if the game depicted violence against a law enforcement officer.

Legislation is pending in Georgia. And in his State of the State speech yesterday, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) proposed making it illegal for anyone younger than 18 to buy violent or sexually explicit games.

"For the same reason we don't allow kids to buy pornography, for the same reason we don't allow kids to buy cigarettes, for the same reason we don't allow kids to buy alcohol, we shouldn't allow them to go to stores and buy video games," Blagojevich said.

Visual realism has been the hallmark of the best-selling video games, whose revenue in recent years have almost rivaled Hollywood box office sales. Last year, U.S. sales of video games -- with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Halo 2 leading the pack -- set a record at $7.3 billion. U.S. box office receipts last year were $9.2 billion.

In the Grand Theft Auto series, one of the more controversial ways that players can advance is by stealing cars and shooting police officers. The latest installment includes the voice of the actor Samuel L. Jackson as a corrupt cop. The game, published by Rockstar Games, was selected game of the year at the second Video Game Awards in December.

Set in San Andreas, a fictional version of South Central Los Angeles, and featuring black and Latino characters, the game has been targeted by politicians in recent months. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), in announcing his legislation at the news conference, held up a copy of the game, and community activists wore T-shirts with a red "X" on a scene from the game.

"Parents want a reliable way to choose the video games most appropriate for the ages, tastes, and interests of their family members," Rockstar Games said in a statement. "Just like some movies are rated R, some games are rated M because they are intended for ages 17 and older. . . . Mischaracterizing Grand Theft Auto and confusing entertainment with real life social problems is completely unwarranted. . . . The game represents cutting edge art, technology, and entertainment and has been greeted with critical acclaim and enormously positive consumer response across the globe."

Legal experts said legislation that banned sales of the games to minors has been struck down in the courts on free-speech and other grounds.

In the District, the handful of outlets that sell Grand Theft Auto games said they already enforce the industry age restrictions, which prohibit sales to anyone younger than 17.

A representative of Best Buy, which has an outlet in Tenleytown and is one of the largest retailers of video games in the city, said proof of age is required at the register to buy a game that is rated mature. The chain does not carry adult-only games, he said.

Blockbuster outlets in the city rent Grand Theft Auto games but not to those younger than 17 unless authorized by a parent, a company spokesman said.

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