Illinois attorney general urges end to sales of violent video games to minors

Thursday, April 20, 2000

Jim Ryan...
Jim Ryan

Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan is targeting retailers that sell what he terms “ultraviolent” video games to minors.

At an April 18 news conference, representatives from a broad coalition of education and medical groups, including the Illinois Parent Teacher Association and the American Medical Association, joined Ryan in announcing a campaign to stop the sale of violent video games to minors.

Ryan revealed that in March his office conducted an undercover “sting” operation in which children ages 13-15 made 32 attempts to buy video games that were rated “M” by the Entertainment Software Rating Board. On all 32 attempts, the minors purchased the games without being asked their age.

Some of the games included Bio Freaks, Dino Crisis, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat 4, Nightmare Creatures, Assassins and War Gods.

The Entertainment Software Rating Board, which works with the video game industry, has developed a standardized rating system. The “M” rating means: “Suitable for users aged 17 and older. May include violence, adult language and mature sexual themes.”

Video game makers may chose whether they want their games rated by the ESRB, however, many retailers will not carry products that do not have an ESRB rating.

“We all have an obligation to muffle the drumbeat of violence in our state and our nation,” Ryan said at the news conference. “When it comes to exposing our children to violence, we must be especially vigilant. It defies common sense that we would want these shockingly violent and interactive ‘murder simulators’ to flow freely into the hands and ultimately the minds of our young people.”

In his April 18 letter to numerous video game retailers, Ryan wrote: “Because we all must be partners in reducing this culture of violence, I am asking your company to stop this trend. I urge your company to strongly consider enforcing the industry rating system by halting the sale (of) ‘M’-rated games to minors.”

Ryan said in his letter that he would continue to speak out on the issue and said his office would conduct “future stings if necessary to highlight this concern.”

Ryan’s letter reads: “Members of my staff also are researching alternative enforcement strategies if voluntary compliance is not forthcoming.”

“My preference, however, is to work together as partners in reducing the avalanche of violent imagery that is bombarding the minds and spirits of our young people.”

David Greene, executive director of the California-based First Amendment Project, says that the “voluntary compliance is not voluntary.”

“The attorney general is definitely pressuring the retailers to give the force of law to a rating system that was never intended to have the force of law,” Greene said. “At the same time, the attorney general is ignoring the constitutional rights of those under 18 to purchase the video games that retailers want to sell them.”

Free-speech expert Robert O’Neil, founder of the Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, says the actions of the Illinois attorney general “evoke an ominous memory of the activities of the Rhode Island Commission to Encourage Morality in Youth, which the Supreme Court struck down on First Amendment grounds in Bantam Books v. Rhode Island (1963).”

In Bantam Books, the Rhode Island commission sent local law enforcement agencies lists of books which the commission felt were unsuitable for minors. Law enforcement officials then took the lists to bookstores and told bookstore owners that the books were unacceptable for minors.

“Though no formal sanctions were imposed or even threatened, the Supreme Court felt that free expression had been sufficiently chilled by such menacing official action to warrant striking down the statute,” O’Neil said.

“In Illinois, as in Rhode Island, an official declaration seeks to constrain largely protected expression — most ‘ultraviolent’ materials are not illegal — in ways that the formal process could not achieve without risking First Amendment challenge and sanctions.”