GWEN IFILL: Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting has the video game story, but with this warning: Some viewers may find the content of these games offensive.
TEEN: Beat her up.
TEEN: Yeah, beat her up.
TEEN: Come back here, lady.
LEE HOCHBERG: Tons of millions of Americans, like these Seattle area teens, are enjoying video games on their summer vacation.
TEEN: Kill the cop. Oh, kill that guy. That's a nice swish on the wall.
LEE HOCHBERG: These boys are playing "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," the top selling game in 2002. It's been praised by some video game reviewers for its innovative and astonishing game play. But what has horrified many is that the players are rewarded for beating and killing police officers and others. The state of Washington has just passed a law that fines video stores $500 for renting or selling games like this to children under 17. The law is slated to take effect this month. Its sponsor is Democrat Mary Lou Dickerson.
MARY LOU DICKERSON, Washington State Representative: A lot of these games are just plain sick. They're sick, they're violent, they're racist, and they really have no business in the hands of a 12-year-old.
LEE HOCHBERG: Though the law targets all games that portray violence against police, Dickerson said she's really going after 16 of the most violent ones. Some studies have linked them to aggressive behavior, and Dickerson says they generate much of the $10.3 billion the video game industry earned last year.
MARY LOU DICKERSON: We've been seeing a whole rash of shootings throughout this country and in Europe that relate back to kids who obsessively play violent video games. The kids involved as shooters in Columbine were obsessively playing violent video games. We know after the beltway sniper incident where the 17-year-old was a fairly good shot, but Mr. Mohammed, the police tell us, got him to practice on an ultra- violent video game in sniper mode to break down his hesitancy to kill.
LEE HOCHBERG: Dickerson showed us two of the games-- "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," made by Rock Star Games and "Postal 2," produced by Arizona-based Running with Scissors.
LEE HOCHBERG: Now he's pouring...
MARY LOU DICKERSON: Pouring gasoline on him. You can hear him cry.
LEE HOCHBERG: He's setting the police officer on fire.
MARY LOU DICKERSON: Yeah. The player shot the victim set them on fire, and now he is urinating on them.
VOICE ON GAME: Mm, smells like chicken.
MARY LOU DICKERSON: And they get points for doing that. Different variations on beating women to death. The player gets points for having sex with a prostitute. Now they're getting out of the car, he's going to take his money back, and then beat the prostitute to death.
VIDEO GAME CHARACTER: Okay, you proved your point now get lost.
MARY LOU DICKERSON: Each one of those kicks generates a point. ( Gunshot )
VIDEO GAME CHARACTER: Oh, mommy.
MARY LOU DICKERSON: The player has a choice. Does he want to urinate on the victim or not? Does he want to shoot them or not? Does he want to take a shovel and decapitate them or not?
DOUG LOWENSTEIN, Interactive Digital Software Assn.: I would defy you to find any example of a kid who has played a video game and rushed out and gunned down policemen.
LEE HOCHBERG: The video game industry's Doug Lowenstein maintains some studies have shown no link at all between violent games and aggression.
DOUG LOWENSTEIN: We haven't seen a rash of kids jumping... 16-year-olds jumping into their cars and running over police cars the last I've looked.
SPOKESMAN: Anybody seen Lauren...
LEE HOCHBERG: And he discounts the argument that the columbine tragedy or D.C. snipings were prompted by video games.
DOUG LOWENSTEIN: Anybody who suggests that the kids in columbine carried out their heinous crimes because they played video games is really demagoguing the issue. These kids, I think we all know, had acutely serious problems. Passing a law that says a child can't buy a violent video game, if you think for a minute that that's going to reduce the violence we have in our culture and our society, I think you're kidding yourself.
SPOKESMAN: No, wrong turn.
LEE HOCHBERG: The industry points, in fact, to studies that suggest video games actually give kids a harmless way to release aggressions, an idea with which these high school students agree.
STUDENT: This game doesn't make me want to go out and kill people.
STUDENT: Yeah. Or just run over people in my car.
STUDENT: What I can't do in real life, I do in video games. ( Laughter )
STUDENT: I don't think you would... like, make you more violent towards other people. Like, I think it just makes you more violent in the game.
SINGING: ...And I don't know why I came here tonight...
LEE HOCHBERG: The video game industry has sued Washington State, arguing the new law infringes on its freedom of speech. It argues its games are no different than violent movies, like this, which are protected under the First Amendment.
DOUG LOWENSTEIN: The definition of art isn't whether we like it. There are paintings that people regard as trash, there are books that people regard as trash, but we regard them as protected nonetheless.
LEE HOCHBERG: Dickerson doubts video games were what the framers of the constitution had in mind.
MARY LOU DICKERSON: I don't believe that when we're talking about ultra- violent video games where players get points for decapitating people or beating people to death, I don't believe that's covered by the First Amendment.
LEE HOCHBERG: Cities that have passed laws restricting access to violent games, like Indianapolis and St. Louis, have been turned back in the courts. A federal appeals court last month struck down St. Louis' law, arguing it was: "a regulation of speech based on content, and does not survive strict scrutiny." Dickerson says Washington State's law, with a narrow, clearly stated goal of protecting police, will survive a legal challenge. But some constitutional lawyers doubt it. Seattle attorney Paul Lawrence:
PAUL LAWRENCE, Constitutional Lawyer: In the First Amendment area, there's a strong burden on the government to actually prove the evidence of what they're trying to do. They can't just rely on general notions that there is some aggressiveness that results from video games, therefore we have a right to regulate them. The number of kids that play video games like these, you know, 99.9 percent of them are not violent and do not shoot cops.
LEE HOCHBERG: And if there is 0.01% that do?
PAUL LAWRENCE: That's just not enough to regulate free speech.
BOB THURSTON: I don't care what the attorney says. You know what, how many attorneys have been shot down in the middle of a night stopping a car?
LEE HOCHBERG: Police organizations, convinced the games put them at risk, support Washington's law. Bob Thurston heads the 1,000- member Washington State Patrol Troopers Association.
BOB THURSTON: If this prevents one police officer from being killed, then I think it's worth it. A life is worth a hell of a lot more than a video game.
LEE HOCHBERG: The state hopes testimony from child psychologist Connie Umphred influences the court hearing the industry challenge. Umphred says because they are interactive, the games affect youth differently than any book or movie.
CONNIE UMPHRED, Ph.D., Child Adolescent Psychologist: The pressing of the buttons, the sounds, the instant gratification, the association between pressing a button and causing violent things to happen to a human-like form are reinforcers. It's just a tiny step away from reality at that point, while, for instance, watching a movie is just passively observing someone else doing it.
LEE HOCHBERG: The industry will argue the law is unneeded, its own rating system should keep kids from the games. "Grand Theft Auto" is marked "M" on its box. That means it's suitable for persons 17 and older, and retailers aren't supposed to sell it to minors. Yet when a Seattle citizens group recently sent children into stores to try to buy "Grand Theft Auto," 15 of 17 had no trouble. We watched as 12-year-old Jeremy Kohlenberg purchased it at a Best Buy store.
JEREMY KOHLENBERG: She looks at me and she says, "Are you sure you should be buying this game? You look kind of under-aged." I said, "well, it's a really cool game and all my friends have it." So she goes off to her phone and she dials up her manager. So she said, "okay," staples this receipt, and she hands me the game, and I walked out the door.
LEE HOCHBERG: Best Buy says it's in the process of reviewing its policies, and will make adjustments as needed. The game industry says it's encouraging retailers to do that, but it adds kids buying video games isn't really a problem. It cites a 2000 Federal Trade Commission study that says 83 percent of violent games are purchased by adults.
DOUG LOWENSTEIN: If a parent looks at the rating and ignores the fact that the game is, you know, significant violence, strong language, sexual themes, and buys that game anyway, I'm sorry, that's not something that is a failure of ratings. That is a failure of parenting.
LEE HOCHBERG: Yet the same FTC study the industry uses to build a case for its rating system also makes one against it. The report charges: "The aggressive marketing of violent games to children undermines the credibility of the industry's ratings and frustrates parents' attempts to make informed choices." The challenge to Washington's law was heard in a Seattle courtroom today. Congress, meanwhile, is debating a national bill to levy fines of $5,000 against stores that sell or rent violent games to minors.