A nearly four-hour hearing of the Washington D.C. City Council on Wednesday considered Bill 16-125, video game legislation proposed by Democratic Councilman Adrian Fenty. If passed, the bill would fine retailers up to $10,000 for selling "M" and "AO"-rated video games to minors. Fenty has announced that he plans to run for D.C.'s Mayor in 2006.
Councilman Jim Graham chaired the meeting, which was substantially delayed due to a last-minute constitutional opinion issued by D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti. Graham expressed his annoyance at the delay, saying that no one from either Spagnoletti or D.C. Mayor Anthony William's office was present to discuss the A.G.'s 14-page legal opinion.
"We have no witnesses on this opinion from the Mayor. I think that is irresponsible," Graham said. "You can imagine my disappointment that this is the approach taken by Robert Spagnoletti and his staff."
During the lengthy hearing, numerous witnesses testified and were questioned, including industry representatives, legal experts, D.C. citizens, and an Inspector from the city's Metropolitan Police Department.
At one point Councilman Fenty referred to the games business as "an industry that has gone out of control, making these games and profiting from them...I think in reality that the reason that the industry doesn't want these laws passed is that millions of dollars are being made from their sale to minors."
As might be expected, Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was the primary target of game critics in attendance. Several citizen witnesses offered anecdotal evidence that crimes like car thefts, robberies and assaults were up since GTA:SA was released.
"Grand Theft Auto and other violent games are pushed toward the urban areas that we live in, just like the liquor stores, the drugs, and a lot of other negativity has been dropped in our communities," said witness Demetrius Brown. "What that game is really doing is desensitizing you to rob, to beat, to kill. It's interactive. You become that person."
Speaking for the game industry, Gail Markels, a Senior Vice-President and General Counsel of the Entertainment Software Association, objected to legislating games while other forms of media are not regulated.
"It's all about content, not the delivery system or the vehicle," Markels said.
Her comments were echoed by game developed Daniel Greenberg, who pointed out that if the D.C. legislation passed, his game Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption would be restricted, but his book by the same name would not.
"This bill would strip away First Amendment protection from my M-rated games," Greenberg said. "This book would not be considered obscene by the D.C. City Council. This game would."
Both the ESA's Markels and a representative from the Interactive Retail Merchants Association (IEMA) discussed the value of the ESRB ratings in keeping inappropriate games from minors. Councilman Fenty objected, however.
"It (the rating system) has no teeth," he said.
Key testimony came late in the hearing from ACLU National Capitol Area Director Johnny Barnes and constitutional law expert Paul Smith. Both felt strongly that Fenty's video game bill would not survive a challenge on constitutional grounds.
"The legislation as drafted," said Barnes, "would not withstand the scrutiny of the courts"
No voting took place at the hearing, and Fenty's bill remains under consideration by City Council. The full video of the hearing is available online.