WASHINGTON – An industry-regulated video game rating system is misleading,unclear and does not provide parents with sufficient tools to monitor what their children are playing,Republican lawmakers said Wednesday.
At a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on violent video games,lawmakers grilled representatives of the video game industry for allowing racy content – such as in the game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” the highest-selling game of 2004 – to end up in the hands of children.
That game came under congressional scrutiny after the discovery of a hidden mini-game called “Hot Coffee” that allowed players to participate in an explicit sex scene. The game was rated M for mature,but the rating did not mention the graphic sexual content. M-rated games are recommended for players over 17.
Lawmakers scolded Patricia Vance,president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board,the video game industry self-regulation agency,for giving the game a M rating and not an AO,or adults only,rating. They also questioned the integrity of the rating process.
The board that rates games does not actually play them. Members watch a video provided by the publisher that summarizes the game's content and compares it with a written report also provided by the publisher,Vance said.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn,R-Tenn.,questioned whether the rating process can be effective when publishers choose the content on which their game is rated. “Do you see a problem?” Blackburn asked Vance.
“If they don't fully disclose the product,there are serious consequences,” Vance responded,noting the board can fine the publisher.
The board did not fine Take-Two Interactive,publishers of the “Grand Theft Auto” game,for not disclosing the “Hot Coffee” mini-game. Vance said the publisher has spent $25 million recalling and reproducing the product without the content and further financial penalties aren't necessary.
Last year the House and Senate passed resolutions instructing the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Take-Two Interactive and the game's developer,Rockstar Games.
The FTC later charged the companies with failing to fully disclose the game's content. The FTC,Take-Two and Rockstar reached a settlement Friday,in which the game companies pledged to disclose the content of future games and agree to fines of up to $11,000 per violation if they fail to do so.
Rep. Fred Upton,R-Mich.,who wrote the House resolution,complained the FTC had “no teeth” and that the actions were nothing but a “slap on the wrist.”
“I would have liked them to be fined millions for the trash they put out,” he added.
Committee members also questioned retail adherence to the ratings. They scolded Gary Severson,senior vice president of merchandising for Wal-Mart,for lax policies that allowed a minor to purchase “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” on the company's Web site. Severson said the company stopped selling the original version of the game after learning of its sexual content.
Lydia Parnes,director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection,testified that retailers have improved in complying with the rating system guidelines. A study conducted earlier this year found that 42 percent of secret shoppers ages 13 to 16 were able to purchase M-rated video games. In 2003,69 percent of under-age secret shoppers were able to purchase the games.
“While these results are headed in the right direction,there is still substantial room for improvement,” Parnes' written statement said.
The committee also voiced concerns that parents are not well informed about the rating system. Vance noted,however,that a board-commissioned study found that adults are involved in 83 percent of video game purchases.
Kimberly Thompson,a Harvard researcher,charged that the ratings aren't much help because they are not accurate. She said a study conducted by the Kids Risk Project at the Harvard School of Public Health found that 35 out of 55 games rated E for everyone “contained violence,with injuring characters rewarded or required for advancement in 33 games.”
Content descriptors that accompany and explain the rating are not accurate,she said. “We consistently find that the games contain a significant amount of violence and explicit content that may be of concern to parents,” Thompson said.
The rating process needs to be more transparent and based on consistent criteria,and the public needs to be informed about the entire process,she added. “We don't allow ambiguity in the ingredients on foods. Why should we be so tolerant of low quality in the ratings on media products?” Thompson asked.
The committee is considering a resolution introduced by Rep. Jim Matheson,D-Utah,that would make it illegal for retailers to distribute games rated adult-only to minors under 18 and mature rated games to those under 17. Similar legislation has been overturned in Michigan,Missouri,Indiana,Washington state,Illinois and Minnesota.