Video game lobby silent through post-shooting scrutiny by lawmakers

The lobbying arm of the video game industry is remaining silent amid growing calls on Capitol Hill for new restrictions on violent games.

While the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last week has sparked debates over gun control and mental-health services, lawmakers are also calling attention to the influence of violent movies, TV shows and video games.

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Since last Friday’s attack, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) have all called for Congress to examine whether games contribute to real-world violence.

“The violence in the entertainment culture — particularly with the extraordinary realism to video games, movies now, et cetera — does cause vulnerable young men, particularly, to be more violent,” Lieberman said on “Fox News Sunday.”

No firm evidence has emerged that the shooter in Connecticut, Adam Lanza, drew inspiration from video games. But lawmakers are casting a wide net as they consider how to respond to the massacre in Newtown, which claimed the lives of 20 young children.

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which represents the major video game-makers, did not return numerous requests to comment from The Hill and has yet to release a public statement about the shooting.

The ESA, which was founded in 1994, has been fighting efforts in Washington to regulate violent games for years.

The group spent about 

$4.4 million lobbying Congress in 2011, according to disclosure reports.

In the most recent quarter, the group said it advocated “on behalf of First Amendment rights in relation to media regulation” and against “video game sale content regulation.”

It lobbied against the Violence in Video Games Labeling Act — a bill sponsored by Reps. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) that would require warning labels on video games similar to the warnings on cigarette packs. The bill never received a vote in committee.

The Entertainment Software Rating Board, which was established by ESA, assigns ratings to video games to help parents decide which are appropriate for children.

Games rated “M,” for example, are considered suitable only for ages 17 and older and might contain “intense violence” or “blood and gore.” It’s up to retailers to decide whether to sell those titles to minors.

Because the ratings system is entirely voluntary, some lawmakers say it is not enough to protect children from the harmful effects of virtual violence.

Rockefeller, the chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, introduced a bill this week that would require the National Academy of Sciences to study the impact of violent video games and other content on children.

An aide said the bill is being fast-tracked in the Senate, but there might not be enough time left in the year for a vote.

“Major corporations, including the video game industry, make billions on marketing and selling violent content to children,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “They have a responsibility to protect our children. If they do not, you can count on the Congress to take a more aggressive role.”

At an event on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to discuss children’s privacy regulations, Rockefeller said efforts to address violence in video games have gained momentum because of the shooting in Connecticut. 

“I think it’s a very different atmosphere than it was a week ago,” he said.

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But it is unclear whether Congress could pass any restrictions that would pass muster with the courts.

Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a California law that banned the sale of violent video games to minors, ruling that the ban violated the constitutional right to free speech.

“Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the court’s opinion. 

“In the wake of that [decision], it’s pretty hard to conceive of much of anything that Congress could do that would stand up,” said Andrew Schwartzman, a media attorney who filed a brief with the Supreme Court opposing the California law.

He said it is difficult to distinguish illegitimate material from works that are violent but have artistic merit.

Schwartzman also argued that there is little scientific evidence to suggest that violent video games actually lead young people to commit real violence.

“I frankly think Congress has better things to do,” Schwartzman said.