US games violence explained

Confused by the current legal row between games retailers and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the US? MCV is at hand to explain the background to the feud…

In the UK, any games deemed to be violent are currently required to undergo the BBFC certification process. The resulting age rating is legally enforceable. In the wake of the Digital Economy Bill, however, legal powers have been granted to the PEGI rating system. Any retailer who sells games to anyone younger than the age certificate on the front of a game’s boss is liable to prosecution.

Things are different in the US, where there is no law preventing the sale of violent video games to minors. Instead, the US relies on the voluntary ESRB rating system which independently rates titles and polices the marketing of games. So the system relies on the good will of retailers and the ESRB – legally there’s nothing to stop kids buying violent games.

The issue rose to prominence in the US in 2005 after the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The title took Rockstar’s already popular series to another level in terms of sales, and as a result thrust it further into the public consciousness.

However, concerns about the game’s content took a turn toward the sensational when the Hot Coffee scandal gained momentum. It emerged that Rockstar had at one stage planned to include a sex-based mini-game in the title. These plans were scrapped, but the base code for them remained. When a PC enthusiast learned how to access them, instructions of how the access the content quickly spread across the internet, with outcry following closely behind.

The result was that GTA: San Andreas saw its ESRB rating upped from ‘Mature’ to ‘Adult Only’, a move that saw its retail presence drastically reduced as many retailers have policies preventing them stocking AO titles.

As a result of the scandal, Illinois became the first US state to ban the sale of violent or sexual titles to children. Retailers who knowingly flouted the legislation faced a $1,000 fine. Later that year, however, a judge blocked the law on the grounds that it was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated free speech – something that’s not permitted according to the US’ First Amendment.

The subsequent years have seen several high-profile campaigns against violent games in the US. So prominent has the issue become that it has even made quasi-celebrities of the likes of Jack Thompson, a lawyer who directly targeted cases centred on the sale of violent games to kids.

The upcoming decision from the Supreme Court due this autumn is likely to be the final word in what has become a long and messy saga.

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