SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, is taking some heat from the video game industry after proposing legislation that would require vendors to prevent minors from purchasing games rated "mature" or "adults only."
The bill also seeks to require all game packaging to include a visible rating identification. Critics met the proposal with skepticism, saying it will never pass because it violates the First Amendment.
"You're on shaky legal ground if you're picking one specific art form and saying, 'We're legislating this art form in this specific way,'" said Ben Kuchera, a senior editor at the Web-comic site Penny Arcade. "Besides that, this measure is trying to fix something that's already regulating itself very well."
Matheson's bill, first introduced in the House on Jan. 14, has moved to the Energy and Commerce Committee for consideration. As currently constructed, the measure would levy a fine of up to $5,000 for manufacturers and businesses that fail to comply.
On Wednesday, Matheson said he anticipates a constitutional battle over his proposal.
"There are some constitutional issues that call into question if you can do what my bill says or not, and I freely acknowledge that," he said. "I'm not trying to get in the way of constitutional rights of adults at all, but I'm suggesting it's at least important that we have this conversation."
In 2011, a Supreme Court decision struck down a California law requiring that every video game be given a rating. Already, players in the industry are saying Matheson's solution is similarly doomed to fail.
The Entertainment Software Association, which itself sets the ratings system, released a statement Jan. 17 saying it is better equipped to spread awareness of age-appropriate content and that the federal government is overreaching.
"Empowering parents, not enacting unconstitutional legislation, is the best way to control the games children play,” the statement said.
But Matheson insisted that he's simply looking for a reasonable method to enforce a ratings system that the Entertainment Software Association already believes is appropriate.
"I don't think kids should be out buying these games that have this extreme violent or sexual content, (especially) if the industry itself has rated the game that way and said it's not appropriate for people under a certain age," he said.
Paul Bury, editor-in-chief of Family Friendly Gaming, a Christian-oriented video game publication, said he supports the goals of Matheson's bill.
"I absolutely believe that it would be an effective measure if it were passed," Bury said. "I don't understand the logic of having these ratings but doing nothing to enforce them."
But he said it's a long shot that Matheson's bill would last very long if it were signed into law.
"To be bluntly honest, I think it would eventually fail in the courts," Bury said. "I feel the courts have shown a tendency to overstep their bounds in interpreting what this industry does as 'speech.'"
Kuchera said there is simply too little evidence to suggest that prohibiting businesses from selling certain products to minors will reduce crime.
"Just from constantly being around people who do play (violent video games), I would say it certainly does increase aggressive behavior," he said. "But on the flip side, if you play football, that's certain to increase aggressive behavior as well. … When it comes to these (video) games promoting real-world violent behavior, there's no evidence of that to stand on in court."
Still, despite the apparent long odds of its success, Matheson said he's confident constituents will appreciate the measure.
"I recognize parents are supposed to be first line of defense," he said. "I just think it's important for parents to have these tools available to them. That was the motivation behind the bill."
Matheson's proposal has been thrust into public debate following the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school in December, which prompted both President Barack Obama and National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre to say something must be done about exposure to video games that glorify blood, gore and murder.
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