When the "Hot Coffee" scandal boiled over this past summer, one of the highest-profile people to weigh in on the controversy was Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Democratic junior US senator from New York, former first lady, and likely 2008 presidential candidate jumped on the media uproar over the hidden sex content in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In July, she called for a Federal Trade Commission investigation into the game's publisher, Rockstar Games, and for federal oversight of game retailers. However, since Rockstar pulled the game from store shelves after it was re-rated Adults Only, Clinton has remained largely silent on game regulation.
Until today, that is.
This afternoon, Clinton's office announced she has written a bill that would institute federal regulation of game sales. Coauthored by longtime game critic Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the Family Entertainment Protection Act will be jointly submitted by the two legislators when Congress reconvenes in two weeks.
If made law, the Family Entertainment Protection Act would be a "a prohibition against any business for selling or renting a Mature, Adults-Only, or Ratings Pending game to a person who is younger than seventeen." It would punish violators with unspecified fines, though it did not specify if the clerk who sold the game or the retailer where said clerk worked would be punished. "This provision is not aimed at punishing retailers who act in good faith to enforce the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) system," read a statement from Clinton's office.
While the retail part of the bill is similar to laws recently passed in Michigan, Illinois, and California, the Family Entertainment Protection Act goes much farther. It would authorize "the FTC to conduct an annual, random audit of retailers to determine how easy it is for young people to purchase Mature and Adults Only video games and report the findings to Congress." These findings would be part of a larger annual analysis of ESRB game ratings. "This analysis will help ensure that the ESRB ratings system accurately reflects the content in each game and that the ratings system does not change significantly over time," read Clinton's statement.
The bill would also allow private citizens to file complaints with the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP) "if they find content to be misleading or deceptive." The BCP would issue an annual report on said complaints to Congress as part of the aforementioned annual review.
As justification for the act, Clinton's office claims that "video game content is getting more and more violent and sexually explicit." It cites the recent 10th Annual MediaWise Video and Computer Game Report Card, issued by the National Institute on Media and the Family, which gave the industry a "D+" and said the ESRB was "beyond repair." Also, the study's secret shopper program found that 42 percent of the time boys under 17 were able to buy M-rated games from retailers, with underage girls succeeding 46 percent of the time.
"A majority of parents are feeling increasingly victimized by a culture of violence that makes it difficult to protect their children against influences they find to be inappropriate," read Clinton's statement. "This bill would help empower parents by putting them back in the driver's seat. It would ensure that children can't buy games the video game industry itself has determined to be inappropriate for them."
Despite the strong language, Clinton underlined the fact the Family Entertainment Protection Act would not directly censor games. "Senator Clinton acknowledges that video games are fun and entertaining and does not support any limitations on the production or sale of games to adults," read the statement. "This is about protecting children," she said.
That said, one aspect of the act will undoubtedly send shivers through the industry. Not only will Section III of the bill give the FTC the authority to investigate misleading ratings, it will actually require the body "to conduct an investigation to determine whether what happened with GTA: San Andreas is a pervasive problem."
An even more ominous-sounding aspect of Section III is how it will empower the FTC to "take appropriate action if [Congress] determines that there is a pervasive problem" with the ESRB's rating system. This means new, federal game ratings that could replace the current system if sufficient fault was found by the FTC.