Yesterday wasn't a stellar day for the game industry's public image. First, the National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) gave the industry a cumulative 10-year grade of D-plus, citing increases in sex and violence in games and a content ratings system "beyond repair." That was followed later in the day by US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-N.Y.) announcement of her intention to introduce federal legislation regulating the sale of violent games to minors. Game industry groups were predictably quick to respond.
Entertainment Software Association (ESA) president Douglas Lowenstein said the group "appreciates the fact that she has sought to draft a more thoughtful proposal" in a statement, but also said the ESA strongly opposes the bill, saying measures in place at the moment to keep inappropriate material out of children's hands are good enough.
"There is now a continuum of tools from the store to the home enabling parents to take charge of the video games their kids play," according to Lowenstein. "It is now up to them to do their jobs as they see fit, not up to government to do it for them."
Beyond that, Lowenstein said it would be unconstitutional, and not just for infringing on the creative rights of game developers. The fact that Clinton intends to base what is and isn't acceptable to sell to minors on the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) ratings system gives the industry more grounds to attack the bill's constitutionality, according to Lowenstein.
"While we are gratified that the Senator holds the ESRB in such high regard that her bill would give these ratings the force of law, the courts have made clear that giving a private party governmental powers is unconstitutional," Lowenstein wrote.
Clinton hasn't made her legislation public, and an ESA representative wouldn't comment on whether or not the organization was privy to the actual wording of what she will introduce.
In his response to Clinton, Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA) president Hal Halpin didn't address specifics of the law so much as he defended the group's existing efforts to educate parents and keep inappropriate games out of minors' hands.
"We are making significant and tangible progress and have successfully implemented policies and procedures in each and every member company store across the country in just two year's time," Halpin noted. "We have also replaced valuable in-store signage with ratings education information displayed at the point of merchandising and/or the point of sale. And while we acknowledge that the 'human factor' will always be our greatest challenge (making sure that parents and store-level staff are as committed to the same end as retail corporations), we are convinced that we have done our part."
The theme of progress was one echoed in Halpin's response to the NIMF report card.
"It is important to emphasize that the NIMF 'secret shoppers' were turned down 56 percent of the time when they attempted to purchase M-rated games," Halpin stated. "This turn-down rate is a significant improvement since 2000, when only 19 percent were turned down. This overall trend demonstrates strong and growing retailer commitment to video game rating enforcement, although clearly we are not yet where we want to be as an industry."
The NIMF report gave retailers a B for their policies and a D-minus for their policy enforcement. The ESRB did a little worse, getting a C for ratings education and an F for ratings accuracy. According to the NIMF, "the continual increase in adult content, the failure to use the AO rating, and the 'hot coffee' scandal of 2005 all point toward the deep flaws in the ESRB rating system."
The NIMF labeled the ESRB system as "beyond repair" and called for an "Independent Universal Ratings System." The resulting response issued by the ratings board was less diplomatic than that of the IEMA, alternating between attacking the NIMF's methodology and motivations and defending its own.
"The call to issue more AO ratings has little to do with rating accuracy and more to do with NIMF's real agenda, which is to destroy the commercial viability of games it deems objectionable," the ESRB's response read. "Unlike NIMF, ESRB's job is to be a neutral rater, not a censor."
The board claims that after last year's report card, it contacted NIMF to work with them on a solution, but never received a response. "Their silence is an unmistakable indication that this is not about working cooperatively in the interests of video game consumers, but rather is about NIMF imposing its own narrow values and morality on the rest of the country, regardless that it has little evidence to show that parents agree with their point of view," the statement reads.