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If you're a parent who approves of your 14-year-old playing popular video games like Halo, Half-Life, or Unreal Tournament, state Sen. Sandy Pappas thinks you need to get an education. Two years ago, Pappas, a St. Paul DFLer, introduced a bill that would make it illegal to sell mature or adult-rated video games to children under 17. It went nowhere because it required businesses to bear the brunt of the legislation. But on March 8, she presented a bill to the Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee, one that would put the onus on kids under 17 and make it illegal for them to rent or purchase mature or adult-oriented video games, and it was approved.
If passed by the Senate, it won't be illegal for your kids to watch the show CSI: Miami, but they will be breaking the law if they rent the video game CSI: Miami. Pappas says her goal in passing the bill isn't to rack up fines ($25 for a violation), but rather to educate parents. "This is to let them know that the state says it's inappropriate for children to play these video games," she says. The bill also requires businesses to display a sign notifying customers that it's illegal for minors to rent or purchase M or AO video games, which Pappas says will act as a primer for adults who are unaware (and living under a rock) that video games have violent and misogynistic content.
Currently, all video games are clearly marked with ratings from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, an organization that extensively reviews all games and has a defined rating system. But Pappas insists that parents rely on the government to tell them what's suitable for children, and that the ratings by an independent board are not enough. Groups like the Media Coalition and the Video Software Dealers Association say that not only will the law grant government authority it doesn't have, but any kind of law prohibiting sales of games with violent content to anyone of any age violates First Amendment rights.
"This is clearly unconstitutional," says Sean Bersell of the VSDA. "Minors have First Amendment rights. You can restrict access to material that is obscene or sexual, but when it comes to violence you cannot."
Pappas says that argument is crazy. "Who says children have First Amendment rights?" she says. "How is that relevant?" It's relevant to the courts, which have overturned similar laws in St. Louis and Indianapolis because violent content is constitutionally protected material. And it matters to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ruled that minors are entitled to a significant measure of First Amendment protection.
In the entertainment industry, there's a difference between regulation and prohibition. And ratings for video games, movies, and music are guidelines for children and parents, not a law. Bersell says a bill prohibiting access will usurp the rights of parents. "This says that as the state of Minnesota, we think we know better than you what's right for your son or daughter. That's the state playing nanny."