Congress holds at-times-contentious game hearing

[UPDATE] Industry representatives, critics engage in debate before House subcommittee; blow-by-blow inside.

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While bills regulating the sale of violent video games have been signed into law in states across the country, the issue hasn't been as high profile on the national level. Last year, senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) proposed the Family Entertainment Protection Act to prevent retailers from selling games rated M for Mature or AO for Adults Only to minors, but FEPA hasn't managed to get the traction of its state-level counterparts.

That may be changing. Earlier this year, the Senate's Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Property Rights held a hearing to discuss the issue of laws restricting game sales. Today the US House of Representatives followed suit. The House Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee held a hearing on objectionable content in games today, titled "Violent and Explicit Video Games: Informing Parents and Protecting Children."

Testifying before the Subcommittee were Lydia Parnes, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection; Gary Severson, senior vice president of merchandising for Wal-Mart; Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association; Patricia Vance, president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board; Kimberly Thompson, Harvard associate professor; Warren Buckleitner, editor of Childrens Technology Review; and David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family.

More than half an hour after the scheduled start time, subcommittee chairman Cliff Stearns (R-FL) opened the hearing by dishing out statistics providing some scope on "the spectacular rise of the video game juggernaut." He talked about the fun they offer to people, "especially children, still the core market."

It was then that Stearns segued into the topic of the hearings, bringing up Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and noting the numerous objectionable actions players can perform in the game, finishing with the ability to fly a plane into a skyscraper. Stearns chastised the industry for defending itself on First Amendment grounds, calling games like Grand Theft Auto "cultural pollution," and saying, "this sort of twisted, homicidal imagery is more akin to hate speech, not free speech."

Stearns then yielded the floor to other members of the subcommittee in turn. Like a number of his fellow Subcommittee members, Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-PA) commended the industry for setting up a self-regulatory system before he raised his concerns. His laudatory comments even went further than most, in that he said parents now have the tools to regulate what comes into their homes. However, he still had misgivings about what the ESRB was doing to protect kids whose parents don't monitor what they play.

"There's almost certainly a child somewhere in America who's going to be hurt by [Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas]," Pitts said, suggesting this child's dad might be in jail or his brother selling drugs. "This game could be all it takes to nudge him onto the other side of the fence."

Not all the members were focused on the violent and/or criminal activity in games. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) focused her comments instead on the sexual aspects of games. She mentioned that an alarming number of teens are exploited by sexual predators over the Internet, adding that there's a generation of kids being desensitized to "aberrant sexual behavior" and the subcommittee "would be remiss to not discuss how games are contributing to that problem." Blackburn said there should be no sexual content in M-rated games and expressed interest in the industry's position on requiring age verification only for games with sexually explicit content.

In Lowenstein's opening remarks, he acknowledged that retail enforcement of the ratings system is not where it should be, but he noted that it is getting better. He also compared it favorably to retail enforcement rates of R-rated movies and music that carries a parental-advisory label. Comparing games to other entertainment media was a running theme of Lowenstein's remarks, notably when he cautioned against making generalizations about the industry based on the Grand Theft Auto series.

"Defining this industry based on its most controversial titles would be like defining the film industry based on Kill Bill, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Natural Born Killers," Lowenstein noted, "or the music industry based on Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Dixie Chicks."

Ultimately, he said, it's up to the parents. "No rating system, no parental-control technology, will work unless the parent is engaged," Lowenstein said. "But if the parent wants to be informed, the tools are there."

While they might have disagreed on how much work the industry ratings system needed, the panel members offered different ideas on how to improve it. Vance talked about recent changes to the ESRB's enforcement policies that will soon allow it to levy a $1 million fine against publishers that don't disclose all of a game's objectionable content during the ratings process.

Dr. Thompson suggested that the ESRB actually play the games it rates (currently ratings are determined based on a video tape of the most extreme content in a game provided by the publisher). She also called for more transparency from the ESRB in regards to its ratings policies and standards for assigning content descriptors more transparent.

Buckleitner said there was no better way for the industry to handle the ratings system than it already does but suggested more prominently associating the people who make the games with their products. His theory is that developers wouldn't want to put their name on a violent or unsavory product if their parents can see they were associated with it.

When it came time for Walsh to address the subcommittee, he suggested a universal ratings system, saying parents often complain to him that the current industry-specific ratings systems are too confusing. He also talked about labeling games in the same way as medicine. "We all know that there are medicines that are very helpful to children," Walsh said. "There are also meds that are very toxic. So part of what we do is we label them--we talk about side effects."

Walsh's idea of a universal ratings system resounded with the subcommittee members, who asked panel members to address the idea. As the game-industry representatives, Vance and Lowenstein both acknowledged the idea as a potential solution, but held out reservations. Vance said she wouldn't have a problem with a universal rating system but wanted to make sure the ESRB's system didn't get watered down in the process. Lowenstein said such a system was a wonderful goal, but "the devil is in the details."

The direct questioning of panel members was mildly contentious at times, with plenty of misunderstanding between participants, culminating in an exchange between Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PN) and Vance. After expressing concern that the ESRB's raters were all New Yorker and thus not representative of the nation as a whole, Murphy and Vance struggled to straighten out ESRB stats about how many parents were aware of the ratings and how many actually used them. Murphy pointed out that of those who are aware of the ratings, not all of them use them as a purchasing guide, and not all of those parents actually watch their children play the purchased game.

"Would you accept a babysitter service that said 75 percent of the time we're correct in screening these people to make sure they're not pedophiles," Murphy asked.

"We can't force parents to use the system," Vance said. "Is that what you're getting at?"

Murphy then asked Vance point-blank if games, "repetitively played, with violent content, affect the behavior of some children."

After several false starts and some badgering by Murphy, Vance replied that the research was inconclusive as the representative from Pennsylvania let out a heavy sigh.

After that exchange, Rep. Stearns adjourned the hearing, thanking the participants for their patience and saying it was "overall a balanced hearing."

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