New bill would make ESRB ratings legally binding

[UPDATE] Utah congressman's Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act would make it unlawful to sell AO and M games to children, mandate all titles have clearly visible rating; ESA responds.

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[UPDATE] Following the publication of this story, the Entertainment Software Association issued a statement on the matter. The ESA said it agrees with representative Matheson's ambitions to make sure parents are in control of the entertainment their children take in, but has issues with the proposed legislation itself.

"The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) shares Representatives Matheson’s goal of ensuring parents maintain control over the entertainment enjoyed by their children," the statement reads. "That is why we work with retailers and stakeholders to raise awareness about the proven Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) system, the parental controls available on every video game console, and the importance of parents monitoring what games their children play."

"However, this type of legislation was already ruled unconstitutional and is a flawed approach. Empowering parents, not enacting unconstitutional legislation, is the best way to control the games children play."

The original story follows below.

A new bill---H.R. 287--introduced to the United States House of Representatives Tuesday would make the Entertainment Software Rating Board's ratings legally binding. Currently, there are no legal ramifications for retailers caught selling age-inappropriate games to children.

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The bill--known as Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act--was introduced by representative Jim Matheson (R-Utah) on January 15. It will be discussed as part of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, which is the oldest standing legislative committee in the US House of Representatives.

The committee's responsibilities include the country's telecommunications, consumer protection, food and drug safety, public health research, environmental quality, energy policy, and interstate and foreign commerce.

Under the terms of the bill, it would be unlawful for any person to sell or rent--or attempt to sell or rent--any Adults Only (AO) rated game to any person under the age of 18. In addition, the bill seeks to make it illegal for any M-for-Mature game to be sold to any person under 17.

Further, the bill would make it unlawful for any entity to sell or rent a game that does not contain an ESRB rating label in a "clear and conspicuous location" on its packaging. Should the bill become law, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would have 180 days to create rules mandating that retail establishments display such a rating.

Currently, the ESRB's ratings system is entirely voluntary, though nearly all games sold in the United States are rated by the group. Any person caught violating either of the above terms would be subject to a civil penalty of not more than $5,000 per violation.

An ESRB representative was not immediately available to comment.

The Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act comes a month after the deadly elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 children and six adults dead. The event has sparked new discussion about the relationship between virtual violence and real-world violence. A town in Southington, Connecticut (just 35 minutes from Newtown) planned to collect and destroy violent video games, among other media, though this effort was later scrapped.

In addition, the National Rifle Association condemned video games during a press event in December, saying such games were partially to blame for the shooting. The NRA also took heat from politicians near and far when it released its own game--NRA: Practice Range--on the one-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

In state-level news, Missouri representative Diane Franklin (R-123rd District) introduced HB 157 to the state's General Assembly this week, proposing that all games rated T, M, or AO carry a 1 percent excise tax. Revenue derived from this initiative would go toward mental health programs in the state.

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