December 16, 2005
Senators Clinton, Lieberman and Bayh Introduce Federal Legislation to Protect Children From Inappropriate Video Games
Washington, DC – With just over a week left in the holiday gift shopping season, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh, joined by parents, advocates and experts, introduced legislation designed to prohibit the sale of inappropriate video games to children. In unveiling the bill, the Senators underscored that video game content is getting increasingly violent and sexually explicit, yet young people are able to purchase these games with relative ease and parents are struggling to keep up with being informed about the content. The Senators emphasized that their legislation will put teeth in the enforcement of video game ratings, helping parents protect their children from inappropriate content. They were joined in making the announcement by April DeLaney, Director of the Washington Office for Common Sense Media; Norman Rosenberg, President and CEO of Parents Action for Children and Dr. Michael Rich, Director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital in Boston and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, in a show of support for the legislation.
“The holiday season is a particularly important time to raise awareness of this issue. 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.”
"The content of many cutting edge games is becoming more and more vivid, violent, and offensive to our most basic values," Lieberman said. “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."
“Many parents are being stretched thin trying to provide a good life for their children while protecting them from a coarsening culture,” Senator Bayh said. “Our legislation will give parents a hand by requiring retailers to abide by the ratings that are meant to keep children from purchasing violent video games.”
The Clinton-Lieberman-Bayh bill, the Family Entertainment Protection Act, prohibits 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 offense; $5,000 or 500 hours of community service for each subsequent offense. 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 like in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a pervasive problem and take appropriate action. In addition, the bill will help ensure that consumers have a mechanism to file complaints with the FTC and that the FTC will report these complaints to Congress. Finally, the bill authorizes the FTC to conduct an annual, random audit of retailers to monitor enforcement and report the findings to Congress.
Senator Clinton was motivated to take action on this issue when it was revealed in July 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. When the content was revealed, Senator Clinton called on the FTC to investigate the source of the content and announced that she would work to develop legislation to address this problem. Senator Lieberman wrote to Rockstar games asking them to come clean on whether the material was embedded in the game. Rockstar Games subsequently recalled the game.
Representative Joe Baca (CA), who has introduced legislation in the House to improve the video game ratings system, praised Senator Clinton for her involvement in this issue. “I applaud Senator Clinton for introducing this legislation, and I look forward to working with her to help parents protect their children from exposure to inappropriate and harmful images.”
Illinois, Michigan, and California have all passed state laws to prohibit the sale of violent video games to minors.
The following is a summary of the Clinton-Lieberman-Bayh legislation.
Consider the following scenario: You have been captured by a demented film-maker who drops you into a gang-infested slum. While the gangs think they are hunting you, they don’t know the real plot: that you are hunting them, while the director records each act of murder on film. Since you are outnumbered and could easily be mobbed, you cannot just jump in and fight everyone. Rather, you must be silent and patient, tracking your prey so that you can strike from behind. You strangle a villain with a sharp wire, and a finely-rendered mist of blood sprays from his severed carotid artery…. – First Person Account of Manhunt from Time Magazine, 2003
Video game content is getting more and more violent and sexually explicit, yet young people are able to purchase these games with relative ease. In its 2005, 10th Annual MediaWise Video and Computer Game Report Card, The National Institute on Media and the Family found that retailers were more lenient in their selling practices this year compared to last. Boys as young as nine were able to purchase Mature-rated games 42 percent of the time. At the same time, a majority of parents are feeling increasingly victimized by a culture of violence that makes it difficult to protect their children against influences they find to be inappropriate. This bill would help empower parents by putting them back in the driver’s seat. It would ensure that children can’t buy games the video game industry itself has determined to be inappropriate for them.
I. Prohibition on Selling Mature and Adults Only video games to minors
The centerpiece of this bill is a prohibition against any business for 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 offense; $5,000 or 500 hours of community service for each subsequent offense. This provision is not aimed at punishing retailers who act in good faith to enforce the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) system. That’s why retailers would have an affirmative defense if they were shown an identification they believed to be valid or have a system in place to display and enforce the ESRB system. Similar prohibitions have become law in the last several months in California, Michigan, and Illinois.
II. Annual Analysis of the Ratings System
Since the bill relies on the video game industry to continue rating the appropriateness of games for minors, this bill requires an annual, independent analysis of game ratings. This analysis will help ensure that the ESRB ratings system accurately reflects the content in each game and that the ratings system does not change significantly over time.
III. Authority for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to Investigate Misleading Ratings
Part of the genesis of this bill was the revelation that the makers of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had included, through embedded code that was discovered and made accessible to the public, sexually explicit content inconsistent with the game’s Mature rating. This bill requires the FTC to conduct an investigation to determine whether what happened with GTA: San Andreas is a pervasive problem. It also includes a Sense of Congress that the Commission shall take appropriate action if it determines that there is a pervasive problem.
IV. Authority to Register Complaints
This bill requires the Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP) of the FTC to ensure that consumers can file complaints if they find content to be misleading or deceptive and requires the BCP to report on the number of such complaints to Congress.
V. Annual Retailer Audit
This bill authorizes the FTC to conduct an annual, random audit of retailers – sometimes referred to as a secret shopper survey – to determine how easy it is for young people to purchase Mature and Adults Only video games and report the findings to Congress.