US congress introduces new game-restriction bill

Bipartisan Video Game Ratings Enforcement Act could become federal law, requiring retailers to post AO- and M-rated game descriptions, check IDs of purchasers

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A new bill in the US Congress would force retailers to card kids attempting to buy video games bearing M-for-Mature or AO-for-Adults Only ratings.

In addition to the identification-checking requirement, Reps. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.)'s Video Game Ratings Enforcement Act, introduced on Wednesday, would also require stores to post explanations of what the ratings, devised by the industry-backed Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), actually mean, according to a press release. A copy of the bill's text was not immediately available on Thursday.

US Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah)
US Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah)

"As a parent, I know that I'm the first line of defense against my kids playing Mature-rated video games," Matheson said in a statement. "But parents can't be everywhere monitoring everything, and some reasonable, common-sense rules ought to be in place to back parents up."

The ESRB's ratings definitions say that games with an M-for-Mature rating "may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, and/or strong language." Those with an AO-for-Adults Only rating "may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity" and are recommended only for people age 18 or older. However, most retailers will not stock AO-rated games, nor will console makers allow them to be released on their platforms.

Whether the new rules are necessary may be up for debate. Some stores already attempt to verify the age of game purchasers. For example, Wal-Mart says on its Web site that it already posts information about the ESRB ratings and has programmed its cash registers to automatically prompt sales clerks to check the age of the customer when M-rated games are scanned. GameStop also checks IDs before selling M-rated games.

And interestingly, just after the bill was introduced, the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday released the results of a new "undercover" shopper study, which found that the number of incidents of stores selling M-rated video games to teens has plummeted since 2000.

On average, only 20 percent of the 13-to-16-year-old shoppers were able to purchase the games from stores such as GameStop/EB Games, Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and Toys R Us, down from an average of 42 percent in 2006 and 85 percent in 2000. (Some stores recorded a far lower percentage--for instance, only 6 percent of those shoppers were successful in purchasing M-rated games from GameStop.)

The Parents Television Council, a group whose mission is to shield children from sex, violence, and profanity in television and other media, applauded the bill's introduction, pointing to its concerns about the Mature-rated Grand Theft Auto IV, which has already broken sales records within the first week of its release.

"Video game ratings supposedly exist to protect children from material that is created for adults, but there is no consequence for irresponsible retailers who repeatedly sell these games to children," PTC president Tim Winter said in a statement. "The importance of this issue cannot be overstated when considering the array of games that include content too deplorable and disgusting to describe in detail."

However, previous legislative attempts to limit children's access to violent or sexually themed video games have not met with much success in the courts. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court's decision to block a Minnesota law that would have imposed up to a $25 fine on minors younger than 17 caught buying or renting video games rated "M" for mature or "AO" for adults-only, citing, among other things, First Amendment concerns. Similar rulings have come down in other federal courts with regard to laws in Louisiana, Michigan, and California.

The Entertainment Software Association, which represents the video game industry, said that it shares the politicians' goal of ensuring that children have parental approval before playing certain games, but disagreed with their proposed method of doing so.

"Empowering parents, not enacting unconstitutional legislation, is the best way to control the games children play," said ESA President Michael Gallagher.

The new bill joins a handful of other proposals related to video games that have surfaced in this session of Congress, including new attempts to outlaw "deceptive" video game ratings. That legislation was a reaction primarily to the 2005 "Hot Coffee" scandal, when best-seller Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was found to contain unlockable sexually explicit scenes.

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