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Publishers warn against US game ratings bill

Fears of retail difficulties as final appeal is made to Supreme Court

A number of leading industry figures have spoken out in concern over an impending US legislation that could make it illegal to sell violent games to minors.

The bill was first signed by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007 but, in common with many similar proposals from other US states, was deemed unconstitutional. Schwarzenegger appealed this decision in 2009, but the bill was again thrown out.

The upcoming Supreme Court decision is now the last chance for the bill to become law, after a dozen prior attempts to pass. Many within the industry are concerned that the bill has been able to reach this far, as until now there have been very little in the way of US-wide legal controls over violent game content.

Previous arguments against any such legislation have claimed that it would breach the First Amendment's rules of free speech.

Individual states have attempted unsuccessfully to introduce similar measures of their own - Illinois' violent and sexual game ban, introduced in the wake of Rockstar's Hot Coffee controversy, was quickly overturned.

As well as the moral and constitutional debates, there are fears that adult-rated games would not be stocked by major retailers. Chains such as Wal-Mart have a history of refusing to display products they consider unfit for exposure to minors - even music CDs with suggestive album art have been barred from shelves in the past.

"It’s not about having a dramatic impact on our bottom line," Graham Hopper, executive vice president and general manager of Disney Interactive Studios, told CNBC. "It’s going to make our retailing abilities a nightmare."

"It’s very, very surprising that the Supreme Court is hearing the case," added Take-Two Interactive CEO Strauss Zelnick. "I’m worried about it, and I think everybody in our business should be really worried about it."

"I think the Supreme Court is looking at it to potentially see if there’s something to it or to put an end to it once and for all," said Jack Tretton, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America.

The ESA (Entertainment Software Association) has vowed to fight the bill and has already received the backing of consumer advocacy group the Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA).

If the bill does pass into law other states are certain to resubmit their own variants on similar laws, potentially leading to a number of subtly different restrictions across the US.

"One of America’s great exports is entertainment," said EA CEO John Riccitiello. "The implication is we could end up with state level bureaucracies that define what’s marketable in 50 different jurisdictions across the US. I can imagine [the government] trying to tell Steven Spielberg 'We need 50 different cuts of your movie for each state'. It will screw us up in a real way."

Titles rated M for Mature constituted 17.4 per cent of all US game sales last year, with 'action' proving the most-bought genre at 19.5 per cent. If the bulk of such titles were to be rated Adults Only and were thus difficult to find at major retailers, the revenue repercussions for publishers could be huge.

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David Jenkins