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Last Updated: Monday, 15 September, 2003, 08:04 GMT 09:04 UK
Video games back in US dock
By Rachel Clarke
BBC News Online in Washington

Claims by teenage boys in Tennessee that they were acting out the Grand Theft Auto game when they shot at vehicles are threatening to put the US entertainment industry back on trial.

Screenshot from Grand Theft Auto
Grand Theft Auto has sold millions of copies
One man was killed and a woman was badly hurt when William Buckner, 16, and his step-brother Joshua, 14, decided to relieve their boredom by opening fire on traffic on Interstate 40 with a .22-calibre rifle.

Lawyer Jack Thompson has taken up the case and plans to sue the makers of Grand Theft Auto, saying they should bear some responsibility for the death of Aaron Hamel, a 45-year-old nurse and the injuries caused.

Mr Thompson said if manufacturers wanted to keep selling violent games to children, they should be prepared for the consequences he believes repeated playing can have on young and impressionable minds.

He told BBC News Online that parents and the individuals involved also bore responsibility, but argued that without the games there might be fewer murders.

"Nobody is saying that a video game by itself can turn someone into a mass killer," he said.

"But the law is that if you make a product that is linked in a chain of events, and but for that link the final tragedy would not have occurred, you are liable. You don't have to have little angels turned into killers."

Mr Thompson said it was particularly important to protect children as they were increasingly being tried as adults though their young age may mean they understand less of what they do.

Looking for answers

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which represents the video game industry, points to research showing that parents overwhelmingly know what games are coming into their homes and being played by their children.

While video games may provide a simple excuse for the teenagers involved in this incident, responsibility for violent acts belongs to those who commit them
Douglas Lowenstein, president
Entertainment Software Association
It also says violent games are played elsewhere in the world where incidences of violent crime remain lower than in the US, suggesting the causes are not the games.

Take-Two Interactive Software, which publishes Grand Theft Auto, said it had no comment on the case.

Douglas Lowenstein, ESA president, described the killing of Aaron Hamel as an "unspeakable tragedy".

In a statement, he said it was understandable that bereaved people would look anywhere for answers.

But he cited the Surgeon General of the United States, the Washington State Department of Health and the Government of Australia as all finding no credible evidence that violent games led to violent behaviour.

"While video games may provide a simple excuse for the teenagers involved in this incident, responsibility for violent acts belongs to those who commit them," he said.

"We cannot comment of the specifics of this case but, instead of finger pointing at a game played by millions of Americans every day, we should be asking what led to the actions of these two children.

"Given the science and given the fact that these teenagers had unsupervised access to shotguns and made the decision to fire them on innocent motorists, blaming video games is misguided and counterproductive."

Grand Theft Auto is one of the best-selling games of all time. In the US, it carries a mature rating, for aged 17 and over.

Kentucky loss

Mr Thompson has fought this battle before - and lost.

He was involved in a case where the families of three students shot by a 14-year-old schoolmate tried to sue video game manufacturers among others for responsibility in the deaths at their school in Paducah, Kentucky.

Teenage boy plays video game
It appears simply impossible to predict that these games... would incite a young person to violence
2002 court ruling in Kentucky
It was argued that Michael Carneal had been so influenced by playing games such as Doom, Quake and Resident Evil where participants shoot virtual opponents that the games had contributed to driving him to kill.

But the case, which also targeted internet and movie producers was thrown out finally by an appeals court last year.

The judges wrote: "It appears simply impossible to predict that these games, movie, and internet sites (alone, or in what combinations) would incite a young person to violence.

"Carneal's reaction to the games and movies at issue here, assuming that his violence actions were such a reaction, was simply too idiosyncratic to expect the defendants to have anticipated it.

"We find that it is simply too far a leap from shooting characters on a video screen (an activity undertaken by millions) to shooting people in a classroom (an activity undertaken by a handful, at most) for Carneal's actions to have been reasonably foreseeable to the manufacturers of the media that Carneal played and viewed."

New chances

Mr Thompson said the different laws and system in Tennessee may give him the chance to make his case to a jury rather than just to a judge which could help.

We are going to hammer their [violent game publishers'] coffin shut in Tennessee if we are fortunate enough to get to a jury
Jack Thompson,
He claimed some links between violent games and violent behaviour are now being claimed by expert associations.

He said there had been various successes - or nails in the coffin of violent video games - and added: "We are going to hammer their coffin shut in Tennessee if we are fortunate enough to get to a jury."

Mr Thompson said he will file his petition in Tennessee soon, and that he hopes to have a result by this time next year. He said he hoped that punitive damages "in eight figures" would be ordered.

But he is also already looking to another case where he believes video games may have played a role in a tragedy.

Last month, a 14-year-old boy in southern Ohio stabbed his aunt to death, possibly while sleepwalking. Just hours earlier, he had been playing a game called Diablo. It is "hugely significant," Mr Thompson said.

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