FTC: Game industry self-policing improving

Feds say gaming retailers have made more progress in keeping inappropriate content out of kids' hands than theaters or DVD and music retailers.

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While concerned parents and legislators have criticized the gaming industry as selling violent games to children, a report released today by the Federal Trade Commission names the gaming industry as the most improved media when it comes to keeping children from inappropriate content.

"While video game retailers have made significant progress in limiting sales of M-rated games to children, movie and music retailers have made only modest progress limiting sales," the FTC concluded.

According to an FTC secret-shopper program that sent children aged 13-16 to purchase violent media, 42 percent of those sent to purchase games rated M for Mature were able to do so. That's down from 69 percent in a 2003 study.

Compared to other media's enforcement of age-restricted categories, games are second only to theaters. The FTC's newest study found children able to purchase tickets to R-rated movies 39 percent of the time, up from 36 percent in 2003. On the other hand, children could buy R-rated DVDs 71 percent of the time, down from 81 percent in 2003. The FTC also looked at unrated editions of R-rated movies for the first time, and found that children could purchase those 71 percent of the time as well.

Music labeled as containing explicit content was the easiest for children to get their hands on in the FTC's study, as kids were able to purchase the recordings 76 percent of the time. In 2003, children were able to buy such music 83 percent of the time.

In addition to children's access to adult content, the report also addressed the way industries market such material to minors.

"The Commission has continued to monitor industry self-regulation in this area, releasing four subsequent reports, all finding that the movie and electronic game industries had made progress in limiting marketing of R- and M-rated products to children, but that the music recording industry had not significantly changed its marketing practices since the Commission's initial report."

While the FTC's review of publishers' internal marketing documents found no explicit targeting of children with the marketing for M-rated games and diminishing advertising on teen-focused TV programs, it raised other concerns.

"The Commission found many examples... of Internet advertising that would appear to violate the industry's standard of not placing ads for M-rated games on websites with an under-17 audience of at least 45 percent. Sixteen of the 20 M-rated games selected by the Commission ran ads on sites that appear to equal or exceed the 45 percent standard. Moreover, that 45 percent standard, by definition, tolerates advertising on websites with very substantial under-17 audiences."

The report also praised the Entertainment Software Rating Board as leading its music and film industry counterparts when it comes to disclosures of ratings information on advertising. However, it also recommended that the ESRB improve its system by placing the content descriptors for games on the front of the packaging. Currently that information is found on the back of a game's box.

The Entertainment Software Association and Entertainment Merchants Association were quick to respond to the report's release.

"It's our hope that these positive findings on our industry's self-regulatory practices are a reminder to legislators that the most effective way to protect children from mature content is not legislation that has been repeatedly declared unconstitutional by the courts," said ESA senior vice president Carolyn Rauch in a statement. "We once again offer to work with any elected officials, as we have done across the country, in a collaborative way to maintain high levels of awareness and usage of not only the ESRB ratings, but also parental controls."

EMA president Bo Andersen said in a statement he was "very gratified, but frankly not surprised" at the report's findings on game rating enforcement. He added that his group--which represents DVD retailers as well as game stores--is committed to replicating that progress when it comes to R-rated DVDs.

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