Video and computer games can be a powerful educational tool for children, psychologists agree, so the question is -- what are kids learning when they spend their time playing "Grant Theft Auto" or "Manhunt," stealing cars and brutally maiming and killing people?
Three Washington state lawmakers say it can't be anything good, and they want to hold the companies that make, sell and rent the games responsible for the effects they might have on the behavior of youngsters.
"Police have been coming to us and telling us about a real problem with copycat killings across the country," said state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, a Democrat from Seattle. "In several instances, teens have copycatted what they're doing in adult video games. I'm not saying that they're the sole cause, but they're a factor."
Dickerson, along with Republican Jim McCune and another Democrat, Joe McDermott, drafted a bill that would allow crime victims or relatives of victims to file personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits against game makers and retailers "if the game was a factor in creating conditions that assisted or encouraged the person to cause injury or death to another person" and if the person who committed the crime was younger than 17.
The measure, which was approved 6-1 by the state House of Representatives' Juvenile Justice and Family Law Committee, is a different spin on the repeated efforts by lawmakers around the country to deal with violent video games. Proposals to ban the sale of violent and sexually explicit games to minors are under consideration in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Illinois.
The interactive game industry has instituted its own rating system for games as a guide to parents and retailers regarding the content and recommended audience for the games, but that does not seem to be enough for politicians concerned about the effects the games might be having.
In Illinois, for example, a proposal presented to lawmakers by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to bar stores from selling violent and sexually explicit video games to children unanimously passed a House committee, even though some lawmakers said they believe the bill's language might be too vague.
The problem, according to some of the state representatives and some critics of the bill, is that it would leave the retailers themselves to decide about which games should be included in the ban, and does not provide clear enough standards for them to make the decision.
Other states, such as Georgia, Indiana and Missouri, have also tried the same thing, passing laws to ban the games for sale or rent to minors, only to see the laws thrown out by the courts as unconstitutional.
Washington state legislators also tried a ban that would have prohibited retailers from selling or renting to minors games that portray "realistic or photographic-like depictions of aggressive conflict" in which the players kill or injure law enforcement officers.
The bill, which was also sponsored by Dickerson, passed the legislature but never went into effect. A federal judge struck it down in July 2004.
In his decision, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik wrote that there were several several problems with the bill, but that, most importantly, bans on depictions of violence based on anti-obscenity laws have never been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The lack of legal controls on depictions of violence in media concerns some psychologists who study the effects of media on children.