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Senate mulls enforcement of age ratings for video games

Legislation designed to stop the sale of inappropriate video games to children was introduced into the US Senate last week. The bill would make it an offence for retailers to sell a Mature, Adults-Only, or Ratings Pending game to anyone under 17.19 Dec 2005

At present in the US, there is no federal law against the sale of violent video games to minors. Instead there is a system of industry self-regulation. Some games are labelled "M" for Mature – and they should not be sold to anyone younger than 17; others are marked " AO " for Adults Only, where customers must be over 18.

Several states, including Illinois, Michigan and most recently California, have passed their own legislation prohibiting the sale of violent games to children. Most of these have been challenged by the industry, which has had some measure of success in striking down the laws as unconstitutional.

On Friday, Senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh, tried to move the debate to the federal level, introducing the Family Entertainment Protection Act into the Senate.

The Senators argue that video game content is getting increasingly violent and sexually explicit, yet young people are able to purchase these games with relative ease, while parents are struggling to keep up with being informed about the content.

“Video games are hot holiday items, and there are certainly wonderful games that help our children learn and increase hand and eye coordination. However, there are also games that are just not appropriate for our nation’s youth,” said Senator Clinton. “This bill will help empower parents by making sure their kids can’t walk into a store and buy a video game that has graphic, violent and pornographic content.”

Senator Lieberman explained, “We are not interested in censoring videos meant for adult entertainment but we do want to ensure that these videos are not purchased by minors. Our bill will help accomplish this by imposing fines on those retailers that sell M-rated games to minors, putting purchasing power back in the hands of watchful parents."

In general terms, the Act would prohibit any business from selling or renting a Mature, Adults-Only, or Ratings Pending game to a person who is younger than seventeen. On-site store managers would be subject to a fine of $1,000 or 100 hours of community service for the first offence and $5,000 or 500 hours of community service for each subsequent offence.

The bill also requires an annual, independent analysis of game ratings and requires the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to conduct an investigation to determine whether hidden content is a pervasive problem and take appropriate action.

This issue was highlighted earlier this year when it was revealed that Rockstar Games had embedded illicit sexual content in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. This game had received a Mature rating from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which was unaware of the embedded content.

The bill also sets out a mechanism for consumers to file complaints with the FTC and would ensure that the FTC reports these complaints to Congress. Finally, the bill authorises the FTC to conduct an annual, random audit of retailers to monitor enforcement and report the findings to Congress.