Sunday, May 11, 2008

House bill would enforce ESRB game rating system

House bill would enforce ESRB game rating system

A bipartisan bill was introduced in the US House of Representatives Wednesday aimed at forcing stores to card minors attempting to purchase video games rated "Adults Only" or "Mature." It's not the first time such legislation has been tried.

"Too many children are spending too much time playing inappropriate video games that most parents would find shocking and objectionable," reads a statement from the bill's principal sponsor, Rep. Lee Terry (R - Neb.), on behalf of co-sponsor 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. But parents can't be everywhere monitoring everything and some reasonable, common sense rules ought to be in place to back parents up."

As H.R. 5990 currently reads, "It shall be unlawful for any person to ship or otherwise distribute in interstate commerce, or to sell or rent, a video game that does not contain a rating label, in a clear and conspicuous location on the outside packaging of the video game, containing an age-based content rating determined by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board."

The Entertainment Software Rating Board issues a "Mature" rating to video games with content it deems appropriate only for people 17 years of age or older, while the "Adults Only" tag is reserved for much more objectionable content, for gamers at least 18 years old. Rep. Terry hopes the official acknowledgment of the ESRB rating system will give his bill a better chance of staying the law of the land once the President signs it.

Similar to Matheson's failed H.R. 5345 bill two years ago, retailers would be required to post video game ratings "in a clear and conspicuous location." Any store found in violation would be forced to pay a fine up to $5,000. The Federal Trade Commission would be responsible for penalizing retailers.

Even though it's impossible to stop folks over 17 from purchasing M-rated games for minors, Rep. Matheson said the bill would help ensure minors will be less likely to buy it without their parents' permission. This is Matheson's second attempt to co-author such legislation.

Several stores, including Wal-Mart and GameStop, already card M-rated content purchasers. Stores in California and other states also sporadically card shoppers who attempt to purchase video games known to contain violence.

In May 2006, the state of Oklahoma signed H.B. 3004 into law, which added games with "inappropriate violence" to a growing list of items considered harmful for minors. The Entertainment Software Association announced soon afterward it would file a lawsuit against Oklahoma, claiming the bill would restrict Sooners' First Amendment rights.

Earlier in 2008, a similar law in Minnesota was blocked by a federal appeals court, stopping a law that would have fined minors $25 if they were caught attempting to purchase or rent video games with the "M" or "AO" rating.

Similar pieces of legislation in California, Michigan, and Louisiana have been shot down over possible First Amendment violations. California passed legislation in October 2005 supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) that would make sale to minors illegal, and would force the clear labeling of video games. That law was struck down in August 2007 by a US District Court. Gov. Schwarzenegger appealed the decision, though at this point it will likely never become law.

Late last year, both US Senators and presidential candidates were put in the hot seat when they were asked to discuss the controversy surrounding the controversial launch of Manhunt 2.

Presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D - N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I - Conn.) have supported legislation both on the state and federal level, and worked with the ESRB for a nationwide television campaign to inform parents about violent video games in 2006.

Critics of game legislation claim more must be done to educate parents about video game ratings, saying game legislation is not the answer. Furthermore, critics say minors can purchase the same video games via the Internet with the use of a debit or credit card without having to prove they are over the age of 17 or 18.

The FTC's most recent "undercover shopper" test discovered that 80% of 253 minors were turned down when they tried to purchase M-rated games. Its test the year before found only 58% of children were turned down, and Rep. Matheson claims 42% of unsupervised teens aged 13 to 16 could purchase M-rated video games in 2005.

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