ESA Suing Michigan Over Violent Games Law

Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm today signed SB 416 into law, which could impose very heavy penalties on people caught selling or renting violent games to minors. In fact, a manager of a business that lets a minor play a violent game could face more than 3 months in jail and a fine of $25,000. The game industry is suing to overturn the law.

While California still waits for Gov. Schwarzenegger's decision to either sign or veto AB 1179, Democratic Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm today announced that she has completed the signing of a bill package (SB 416, SB 463, HB 4702, & HB 4703) that would make the sale or rental of mature or adult-rated video games to children (i.e. 17 and younger) illegal in MI. The new law goes into effect on December 1, 2005, but the Entertainment Software Association, which represents the computer and video game industry, is filing a lawsuit against Granholm in an effort to overturn the law.

Big penalties

Unlike the pending CA law, however, Granholm's violent games law would enforce much stricter penalties. A retailer caught selling a violent game to a minor would be subject to a fine of up to $5,000, which is five times the amount of AB 1179's fine. Furthermore, repeat offenders could be liable for fines up to $15,000 on the second infraction and as high as $40,000 after that. And, any person who pretends to be a minor's parent or legal guardian in order to get the game for that minor will face up to 93 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $15,000. The manager of a business that lets a minor view or play a violent game also would face up to 93 days in jail and/or a steeper fine of up to $25,000.

"Protecting our children must be everyone's top priority," said Granholm. "This is a common-sense law that provides parents with the tools they need to protect their children from the effects of violence and graphic adult content."

According to a press release issued by the governor's office today, "In May, a series of independent investigations conducted at the request of the Granholm Administration found that children as young as age nine were able to purchase adult-rated video games (rated M for Mature or NC-17) nearly half of the time." Investigations conducted in Cass, Genesee, Ingham, Lenawee, Monroe, and Wayne counties found that 26 of 58 stores sold games such as Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt, Doom 3, Mortal Kombat, and Resident Evil to minors.

"The graphic nature and wide availability of these games should disturb all of us, whether or not we are parents," added Granholm. "I am proud to sign legislation that will protect children from this kind of content."

Vagueness could pose a problem

Apparently the law does not take into account the ESRB rating system to determine which games are affected. SB 416 defines an ultraviolent explicit video game as one that "continually and repetitively depicts extreme and loathsome violence" such as "real or simulated graphic depictions of physical injuries or physical violence against parties who realistically appear to be human beings, including actions causing death, inflicting cruelty, dismemberment, decapitation, maiming, disfigurement, or other mutilation of body parts, murder, criminal sexual conduct, or torture."

The vagueness of the law's phrasing, however, concerns the ESA because "retailers will have no objective way to determine whether they are in compliance and game developers will not know if their products would be covered."

And, as with similar legislation, the ESA believes that the MI law would be considered a violation of the First Amendment. "If this law is implemented, it will not only limit First Amendment rights for Michigan's residents, but, by virtue of its vagueness, it will also create a huge amount of confusion for Michigan's retailers, parents, and video game developers," commented Douglas Lowenstein, president of the ESA, the trade group representing U.S. computer and video game publishers. "I'm confident the court will affirm our position given the rulings on similar statutes in other jurisdictions; indeed, the facts, the science, the law, and the U.S. Constitution have not changed since those decisions were handed down."

Game industry singled out?

Lowenstein believes that the MI law is simply "an effort to substitute the government's judgment for parental supervision and turn retailers into surrogate parents." He also added that he thinks the video game industry is being unfairly singled out.

"In 2004, the average game buyer was 37 years old and the average game player was 30," Lowenstein said. "Knowing this, our industry creates a wide range of content for a diverse consumer audience, just as other entertainment industries do. And, it's illogical that video games would be treated more harshly than R-rated movies or music CDs with parental warning labels, both of which can be legally viewed and sold to minors. How can you treat a video game based on James Bond any different than a book or movie based on the same subject matter?"

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