For much of the last year, video games have been in the news because of the actions of governments more than developers. Ever since the Hot Coffee mod to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas became public, sex and violence in video games have become a hot-button topic for many a pundit and the subject of many a bad piece of legislation.
Yesterday, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing on the subject of regulating video game sales. The central issue was how well the current video game rating system is working and whether children were able to buy M-rated games and access inappropriate content. While the Federal Trade Commission believes (PDF) that the Entertainment Software Rating Board’s rating system generally works well, according to FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection head Lydia Parnes, there are still too many kids purchasing inappropriate games:
The Commission also has expressed concerns regarding how readily children can buy M-rated video games in stores. Although retailers selling video games have steadily improved their record of denying underage children access to M-rated games, a significant percentage of children sent in as undercover shoppers are still able to buy these games.
The FTC’s most recent study showed that 42 percent of its "mystery shoppers" between the ages of 13 and 16 were able to purchase M-rated games during 2005. That’s an improvement from the 69 percent figure of 2003, but not where either the FTC or Congress wants it to be.
Parnes also warned against overzealous attempts to regulate the sale of video games by law.
Because the expressive content in video games has been considered protected speech under the First Amendment, there is a very narrow range of permissible government involvement with their advertising and marketing. As the industry continues to produce games with increasingly explicit content, it becomes even more incumbent upon industry to enforce and enhance its self-regulatory guidelines governing marketing, and upon retailers to implement and enforce policies restricting children’s access to Mature-rated games.
That particular bit of testimony is something of which lawmakers at all levels—local, state, and federal—should take notice. Passing laws that regulate the sales of video games has turned out to be a waste of lawmakers’ time and taxpayers’ money, given how the courts have reacted to them.
Wal-Mart, the largest video game retailer in the US, was present at the hearing as well. Senior vice-president Gary Severson reiterated the company’s policy that bars the sale of M-rated video games to anyone under age 17 if his or her parent is not present at the time of the sale.
Another area of concern was the kind of modding and patches that got TakeTwo into trouble with GTA: San Andreas. The FTC believes that "undisclosed explicit content in video games is obviously a matter of serious concern," and that it is something that needs to be addressed. The problem is that once a game is released, it’s out of the developers’ hands. If a game has "hidden" content that can be accessed—as was the case with Hot Coffee—then the developer shares the responsibility for that. In many other cases, it’s third-party patches that cause much of the trouble. The solution is quite simple: provide a disclaimer saying that the game’s experience and rating may change as a result of unofficial and unsupported third-party mods. In addition, parents need to keep an eye on what their kids are doing. They can’t just buy little Johnny a copy of Oblivion and then let him download a mod that lets his female characters walk around topless.
It’s an election year, and decrying sex and violence in video games is an easy way to score points with some constituents. Let’s resist the temptation to pass bad legislation and focus instead on good parenting.