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Jim Matheson

U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson wants to make it a federal crime for a retail outlet to sell a "mature" or "adult" rated video game to underage children.

Matheson, D-Utah, said he will not try to control the content of violent or sexually explicit video games, a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States. Rather, he'll try to stop the purchase of hard-core games by minors.

"The industry already has its own rating system," much like the current movie rating system, Matheson said. He will just incorporate the video game rating system into his new bill, which the congressman told the Deseret Morning News' editorial board on Wednesday is drafted but not yet introduced.

"I'm just going to say you have to ID (the buyer) for any 'mature' or 'adult only' rated games," Matheson said. His bill will also require that any video game sold in the United States have the current rating system classification prominently displayed on the box, so buyers know what they are getting.

A spokesman for the Entertainment Software Association, the trade association that represents the video game industry, said he couldn't comment on Matheson's bill since he hasn't seen a written copy of it.

In its 2005 Video Game Report Card, the National Institute on Media and the Family says of the fast-growing video game industry: "For the past several years, the most popular games have been ultra-violent first-person shooters, exactly the games that seem to be the most harmful to young players.

"Disturbingly, these games, including several in the widely known Grand Theft Auto series, are the very same games that our research has found are most popular with kids. In other words, the industry's power and profits have come at the expense of children's welfare."

In a way, Matheson's new bill is a companion measure to his already-introduced bill that would require age-certification access (and would tax) adult material on the Internet.

Matheson said parents probably have little idea what kind of video games their teens and preteens are purchasing and playing.

Some of the games are pretty rough stuff. And minors should not be buying adult games without parental supervision, Matheson said.

Since that is not happening in many cases, there is a place for government to ensure that at the very least the young buyers are being checked at the cash register or when they use credit cards to buy online, Matheson said.

"You know darn well" that in most cases "the 13-year-old is not being carded when he buys 'Grand Theft Auto 2,' " Matheson said.

"You get points (in that game) for having sex with a prostitute; you get points for killing the prostitute" — and such material for underage children is just not appropriate, Matheson said.

While many violent and/or sexually explicit video games are popular, if purchased by those 17 or 18 years old (depending on the game's rating) they should be allowable under freedom of speech guarantees, he said.

An Illinois law that attempted to define content and ratings for video games was recently struck down on First Amendment grounds, Matheson said.

"I stay away from that unconstitutional aspect" by not saying what can or can't be in a video game sold to a minor, he said.

Rather, Matheson uses the Entertainment Software Rating Board's current standards — a rating system adopted by the video game industry. The bill will say no one under 17 can buy a "mature" rated game; no one under 18 can buy an "adult only" rated game, either in person at a retail store or online.

Most video game retailers aren't checking IDs now, Matheson said, "although Best Buy (stores) are doing very well in educating and training their employees" not to sell games to underage buyers.

The ESRB Web site says that 12 percent of the $7.3 billion in games sold in the United States last year were rated "M" for "mature" — recommended only for those 17 years old or older — the games containing intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.

Only 1 percent of the game sales were rated "AO" for "Adult Only" — for 18-year-old or older players, containing prolonged scenes of intense violence or graphic sex and nudity.

Thus Matheson's bill would not apply to 87 percent of the video games sold, since they don't include such objectionable material and are not rated "M" or "AO."

Matheson spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend said the congressman has not yet decided on the criminal penalties applied to the offending retail salesperson and/or the retail firm, although fines and jail sentences could be included.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com