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Clinton calls for federal game regulation

[UPDATE] Senator expresses doubts industry can enforce ESRB ratings--asks for legislation that will make selling M- or AO-rated games to minors a federal crime; Rockstar, ESA, ESRB respond.


Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) has officially entered the Hot Coffee fray. This morning in Washington, the junior Senator from New York said she was calling on the Federal Trade Commission to "take immediate action to determine the source of graphic pornographic and violent content appearing on the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas video game."

Clinton joins the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), The National Institute on Media and the Family, and the Australian government's Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) who are all seeking to determine if the "Hot Coffee" mod unlocks game code already present in San Andreas. GTA publisher Rockstar Games contends the mod enters the sexually explicit minigames into the game, in violation of the game's users' agreement.

In addition to asking the FTC to look into the San Andreas mod, Clinton has also asked the FTC to "determine whether an Adults Only (AO) rating is more appropriate than the current Mature (M) rating for the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas video game given this new, alarming content." She is also asking that the FTC "examine the adequacy of retailers' rating enforcement policies."

Not stopping there, Clinton said she would soon author a bill to create a federal law that would "put some teeth into video game ratings." Reminiscent of a California bill introduced by Assemblyman Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) and similar measures in several other states, the legislation will "prohibit the sale of violent and sexually explicit video games to minors" and make such action a federal offense. Clinton said the penalty for violating the law would be a mandatory $5,000 fine.

"No wonder these games are falling into the hands of our children and no wonder so many parents feel everyday like they are fighting this battle with their hands tied behind their backs," Clinton said. "We need to do better. We need to do everything we can to make sure that parents have a line of defense against violent and graphic video games and other content that go against the values they are trying to instill in their children."

The Senator has posted the full text of her letter to Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras on her Web site.

Though Rockstar Games is defending itself in the Hot Coffee controversy, spokesperson Rodney Walker told the New York Times that the company "support[s] any effort to empower parents to control what their kids consume." However, Walker cautioned against hasty legislation. "We also want to strike a balance so that the average video game player, who is not a child, is able to continue to play the games that they enjoy," he said.

Today's efforts by Clinton strike at the heart of what the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) has long sought to avoid: federal oversight of game ratings and federal policing of sales to specific age groups based on those ratings. The magnitude of the recent fury surrounding the Hot Coffee mod stands to impact the ESA's agenda, although it is not yet clear exactly how.

The ESA's response to Clinton's proposed legislation was to claim the Senator's theories were based on flawed legal theory. "The legislation proposed by Senator Clinton is unconstitutional on its face as it amounts to government enacted restrictions on creative and artistic expression protected by the First Amendment," ESA president Douglas Lowenstein said in a statement today.

Framing the ESA perspective, Lowenstein added that, "this is not just our view, but the view of every Federal Court which has rendered final judgment on similar laws enacted by states in recent years, including appellate courts in the Seventh and Eighth Circuits, and the Western District United States District Court."

The ESA concluded that the Senator had the wrong set of goals, based on shaky legal grounds: "[W]hile we understand Senator Clinton's motivation, in the end her solution will never pass constitutional muster and thus will do nothing to help parents raise their kids," Lowenstein said.

Also responding to the Senator's comments was ESRB president Patricia Vance who today cautioned all parties against any hasty actions. "We urge all parties not to rush to judgment until all of the relevant facts, some of which are highly technical and complicated, have been established. Any second guessing at this point would be premature and inappropriate as this investigation continues," Vance said.

Additionally, Vance reminded the Senator that the ESRB also acts with the best interests of families in mind. "Like Senator Clinton, the ESRB is acting in the interests of protecting children, and making sure their parents have dependable information on which to rely when making video game purchase decisions. This is our primary mission, and no one takes it more seriously than we do."

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