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US State puts violent videogames under scrutiny

Proposed law would make age-ratings legally enforceable

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Legal bigwigs met in Massachusetts yesterday to discuss the possible introduction of a law to ban retailers from selling violent videogames to kids.

No offical ruling has been given yet. However, the law, known as House Bill 1423, states games depicting “violence in a manner patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community” should carry a legally enforced age restriction. It would become a crime to sell such games to children, in the same way that US law currently bans the sale of pornography to minors.

In the US, videogames are already classified into several categories, such as ‘AO’ for Adults Only and ‘M’ for 'Mature' - anyone aged 17 or over, in other words - by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The ESRB’s ratings aren’t legally enforceable, so there’s nothing to stop a retailer selling an AO-rated game to an 11-year-old. However, many stores, such as Wal-Mart, refuse to stock AO games.

A spokesman for the Entertainment Software Association, a videogame trade body that numbers many US game publishers among its members, told the Boston Herald that several States have tried to restrict access to such material before. However, he said such moves have been blocked on the grounds that they would be unconstitutional: they would transgress the First Amendment's protection of the right to free expression.

In 2006, a Louisiana judge ordered a permanent injunction against a similar bill that also sought to legally enforce the ESRB's ratings scheme. The judge believed the bill, if passed, would challenge the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

The UK provides a model for how House Bill 1423's objective might operate. Here, videogames are much more strictly regulated than they are in the US. Titles can’t be sold legally without an age rating from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). The ratings are legally enforceable - selling a game to a buyer who's below the rated age group is a criminal offence.

Of course, there's nothing to stop an adult buying an 18-rated game and handing on to a youngster, which is one reason why the BBFC recently refused to classify Rockstar's gory Manhunt 2, effectively banning the title from sale.

The case eventually went to the English High Court, which ordered a review of the BBFC's decision. Last week, the organisation was told it must issue the game with an 18 certificate.

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