N.Y. Pols Move to Restrict Video Games

Published April 1, 2009

New York state lawmakers are weighing several bills aimed at regulating video games, including one to restrict the sale of games containing “various degrees of profanity, racist stereotypes, or derogatory language” or including “actions toward a specific group of persons.”

A First Amendment lawyer specializing in video game law calls the bill sponsored by New York state Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright (D-Manhattan) “nothing more than political correctness.” He says it’s clearly unconstitutional.

“The bill sweeps in way too much protected speech,” said Lawrence Walters. “Violence, racial profiling, profanity—that’s clearly overbroad. It’s speech protected by the Constitution. There is no way you can restrict it.”

Previous Attempts Failed

Wright’s bill, A 01474, is pending in the assembly’s Consumer Affairs and Protection Committee. A similar measure, also introduced by Wright, failed to pass in 2007.

According to the bill’s findings, “Concern about violent video games is based upon the assumption that they contribute to aggression and violence among young players.”

In several cases, however, federal courts have ruled there is no conclusive evidence showing a cause-and-effect link between exposure to violent media and aggressive behavior.

A bill (A 02288) by Assemblywoman Aurelia Greene (D-Bronx) is nearly identical to Wright’s legislation and would ban “the sale of certain designated adult games containing racist stereotypes, derogatory language, and/or actions toward specific groups of persons to minors under the age of 18.”

Vague Language

Although the language of both bills is vague, Walters noted vagueness as a legal standard has a very specific meaning that is often difficult to meet in court.

“The law has to be construed as vague in all its applications,” Walters said. But he’s confident both bills are fatally flawed, regardless of their ambiguous language, because the legislation aims to censor opinions and ideas.

“You can’t do that,” Walters said.

Yet Another Bill Pending

A third bill pending in the New York Assembly, A 02837 by Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua), “prohibits the sale of video games containing sexually explicit or violent depictions to minors” and “requires affixing of warning labels on such video games.”

The bill, awaiting action from the assembly’s Consumer Affairs and Protection Committee, resembles a California law the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found unconstitutional in February. (See story, page 13.) Two similar bills by Kolb died in committee in 2006 and 2008.

Need Questioned

Video game consumer groups question whether such legislation is necessary.

The Entertainment Consumers Association points out the average game player is 33 years old and the average age of a video game purchaser is 38. Just 31 percent of gamers are under the age of 18, according to ECA and retailer surveys.

The Federal Trade Commission last year reported 20 percent of 13- to 16-year-olds successfully purchased M-rated video games in a study of eight retailers, down from 42 percent in 2006 and 85 percent in 2000, indicating retailers are effectively enforcing the ratings without government intervention.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) writes from Rialto, California.