California bill AB450 is one of several proposals now under consideration by lawmakers around the country that, if passed into law, would restrict the sales of violent and sexually explicit video and computer games to minors. The California assemblyman that put forth bill AB450 says games that feature graphic depictions of violence are too easy for kids to lay their hands on, while the organization representing video game retailers says they’re doing a better job of policing themselves than ever before.
California state assemblyman Leland Yee (D – San Francisco) has proposed a bill that would make it a finable offense for game retailers to sell or rent any games deemed violent to persons 16 or younger. The law would make retailers liable for a fine of up to $1,000 per violation if they’re caught doing so.
Similar legislation is currently being reviewed in Michigan, North Carolina and Illinois, in some cases making the sales of such material to minors a jailable offense.
Yee’s bill looked dead in the water earlier this week, but the California Assembly Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media reconsidered it on Thursday and approved the bill. Now Yee’s bill goes to the floor of the state Assembly, and if it passes there, to the state Senate. If all goes well for AB450, Yee’s bill could be on California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk sometime this fall.
Too easy to buy?
Dr. Yee, a child psychologist, says that it’s too easy for kids to get their hands on games assigned an “M” rating by the video game industry’s rating service, the
Entertainment Software Rating Board
(ESRB). M, for Mature, denotes a game that’s only suitable for ages 17 and above. The ESRB defines an M-rated game as possibly containing “intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.” Yee cites a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report that says nearly 70 percent of 13 to 16 year olds are able to purchase M-rated games.
The FTC report cited by Yee uses old numbers, counters Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA) president Hal Halpin. Halpin said the industry has changed a lot since the FTC did its study.
“The FTC report was done in 2003,” Halpin told MacCentral. “And it can really be boiled down to a simple matter: At that time, the IEMA didn’t have any policies or procedures for how sales of M-rated games should be handled. A few of our members did, but we as an organization didn’t.”
The IEMA includes some of the biggest retailers of video games in the nation. Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, CompUSA, Blockbuster, K-B Toys, Toys R Us and other nationwide retailers are counted among its members. Halpin estimates that 85 percent of the video games sold in the United States are sold by IEMA members.
The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) claimed in a 2004 report that about 11.9 percent of the computer and video games released in the United States were M-rated. More than 80 percent were rated E for Everyone or T for Teen.
Those statistics don’t tell the whole truth, counters Adam J. Keigwin, a spokesman for Assemblyman Yee. While M-rated games make up a small number of the games released in total, they make up a significantly larger percentage of sales overall, he said.
From the game publishers’ perspective
“A lot of this comes down to education,” said Michael Rogers, president of Aspyr Media Inc., a major publisher of games for the Macintosh platform. Aspyr’s product line includes M-rated titles like Doom 3, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield.
“If you ask someone what an M-rating means, they often don’t connote the same thing as, say, an R-rated movie,” he said. “The industry is so young and changing so fast. It’s important to get consumers to understand what these labels mean. And retailers — at least the ones we talk with — are interested in supporting the rating system.”
Destineer president Peter Tamte said the rating system doesn’t always tell the whole story about what’s inside the box, either. “We’re culture creators,” he said. “And we do have a responsibility to consider the kind of content we put in our products. I personally have a problem with games that glorify the lives of street thugs and drug dealers. I want to make games that insipire us with stories about role models.”
That idea of a role model was central to Destineer’s own development of the recently released military action shooter, Close Combat: First to Fight, said Tamte. “Part of the experience of being a Marine is violent, yes, but we were careful about how that was portrayed — it was never gratuitous. What defines a Marine is the values: Honor, courage and commitment.”
“But you have to ask yourself when you’re creating an interactive experience, how do you make it appealing to a group of consumers that have been raised with accessibility to the Internet, cable news and movies, where they’ve already been desensitized to violence?” said Tamte. “If you don’t talk to them in their language, the message is lost.”
From Tamte’s perspective, legislators and voters who support restrictions in who can buy video games are “identifying the wrong problem. If people have a problem with Grand Theft Auto, they ought to do something about Grand Theft Auto,” he said, referring to a line of popular M-rated games often at the focus of media and legislative attention.
Self-policing versus legislation
The message coming from the FTC and concerned groups in 2003 was loud and clear, said Halpin: Retailers needed to do a better job of making sure M-rated games only go into the hands of customers old enough to play them. “Unilaterally we said, ‘We can do this, but it will take some time,’” said Halpin.
All IEMA member companies agreed to have in place clearly marked signs that explain the ESRB ratings system and to have processes in place to make sure the salespeople and cashiers restrict their sales of M-rated video games only to buyers 17 and up. That plan went into place in December 2004.
The IEMA’s self-policing just isn’t enough, according to Keigwin. “The program just has no teeth,” Keigwin told MacCentral. “If most retailers were refusing to sell M-rated games to minors, we wouldn’t be working to pass this bill.”
IEMA’s Halpin suggests that the retailers are working closely with consumers, including the parents of the kids Yee’s bill seeks to protect. Those parents are the ones doing much of the buying for kids in this age group, and they’re looking for education and easy access to content information, not government control, he contends.
“We know our customers better than politicians do. We know what they’d like out of our industry. I think we as an industry have to do a better job of communicating that we’ve already made these changes,” said Halpin. “We’re directly responsible for seeing the ESRB ratings system adopted as widely as it is.”
When the IEMA got started eight years ago, said Halpin, only about fifty percent of the video and computer game publishers in the United States used the ESRB ratings system, which is a voluntary system similar to the one employed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). And just as an MPAA rating is necessary for most big theater chains to show a movie, an ESRB rating is mandatory if publishers want their games stocked on the shelves of the biggest retailers.
Support for ESRB ratings skyrocketed following a decision by IEMA members to carry only ESRB-rated software, said Halpin. Today the vast majority of games sold in the United States include the ratings printed prominently on the box, with a box describing what kind of content is inside.
There does appear to be public support for governmental restrictions on video games to minors, if a
recent report commissioned by America Online Inc.
is any indication. 66 percent of 1,055 Americans surveyed in a recent poll support legislation that would restrict the sales of violent video games to minors, according to the report.
Passing constitutional muster
Passing a law restricting the sale of Mature-rated games to minors is only the first step — lawmakers also need to see the legislation stay on the books, and so far, that hasn’t happened. The video game industry has successfully argued in court that such laws infringe constitutional protections guaranteed under the First Amendment.
That doesn’t worry Assemblyman Yee, according to Keigwin. “We absolutely believe that adults have a first amendment right [to buy M-rated games],” he said. “But the state also has an interest in protecting children.”
Minors aren’t allowed to buy pornography, cigarettes or alcohol, he said. Similarly, the sale of violent or sexually explicit computer and video games should be restricted to adults only.
Lumping in violent video games with porn takes us down the proverbial slippery slope, said Halpin.
“If the government starts telling the public who can buy video and computer games, what’s to stop them from doing the same for music, movies and books?” asked Halpin. “The first amendment definitely comes into play here.”
“I don’t see the need for more government regulation — once you open that door, how far does it go?” asked Rogers. “It’s so much easier when the industry does it by itself. This is just going to make it a complicated legal issue with varying legislation from state to state.”
Tamte suspects that if laws are passed that restrict M-rated video game sales only to adults, the ESRB might be inclined to realign the rating system to make more content it now deems M-worthy to be T-rated instead. The net effect would be that more violent games would pass into the hands of youngsters who want to play them.
“What’s next?” asked Tamte. “Are legislators going to ban kids from reading Huckleberry Finn? It’s a violent story, but it’s one that conveys some important values.”
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