Video Games Go to Washington, ESRB Institutes $1M Fine Policy

In March, the United States Senate held a hearing to discuss the potential harmful effects of video games. Yesterday, the House of Representative Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee held its own hearing, and as with the Senate the prevailing emotion throughout was one of hostility towards the game industry and the Entertainment Software Ratings Board in particular. ESRB president Patricia Vance was present along with Entertainment Software Association president Doug Lowenstein. The Federal Trade Commission, which recently warned Take-Two for last year's Hot Coffee incident, was represented by Bureau of Consumer Protection director Lydia Barnes. Also in attendance were Harvard associate professor Kimberly Thompson, Childrens Technology Review editor Warren Buckleitner, and National Institute on Media and the Family president David Walsh, both critics of the ESRB.

Vance discussed a new initiative from the ESRB to issue fines of up to $1M to video game companies that fail to disclose objectionable in-game material to the ESRB for rating purposes. This is in addition to the FTC's warning to Take-Two that further incidents would be met with fines of $11,000 per violation. Depending on the judge interpreting such a case, a violation could refer to the lack of disclosure as a whole, or each specific copy of the game in question sold to consumers.

Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-FL) kicked things off by noting that video games provide potential fun and entertainment, claiming that the core gaming audience remains children. (The latter statement runs contrary to statistics stating that the majority of the gaming audience is of adult age.) Stearns then criticized Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2, Xbox, PC), a constant theme throughout the hearing. He claimed that the game's violent content is undeserving of First Amendment protection, being "more akin to hate speech than free speech."

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) expressed frustration that the FTC did not fine Take-Two for its actions, as it would have against a television broadcaster or a radio show, claiming that the publisher has seen no consequences from the scandal. However, it should be noted that, unlike video game publishers, network television and radio broadcasters send free content over public airwaves.

Following discussion largely focused on violence in video games, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) criticised games for their depictions of explicit sexual acts, claiming that young gamers are being desensitized to such content. She also touched on sexual predators acting via the internet.

Lowenstein compared the video game industry film and music, noting that an entertainment medium should not be judged based on only its most notorious works. "Defining this industry based on its most controversial titles would be like defining the film industry based on Kill Bill, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Natural Born Killers," he said, "or the music industry based on Eminem, 50 Cent, and The Dixie Chicks."

Vance delivered an address in defense of the ESRB's rating system. She provided results from a parental survey on ratings systems, indicating that among the systems used for movies, music, and video games, parents find the ESRB's video game ratings to be the most useful. Vance also touched on the aforementioned new ESRB fine.

Thompson and Walsh each delivered testimony harshly critical of the ESRB. Thompson highlighted alleged cases of soft ratings by the ESRB, claiming that 60% of games rated "E for Everyone" reward violent actions. At one point during the hearing, Vance pointed out that most parents, as well as many congressmen present, would disagree with Thompson's claim that Pac-Man is indeed a violent game. Walsh also mentioned the recent Sex in Games Conference, describing it as "a meeting between video game developers and the pornography industry."

Panel members were also subjected to direct questioning from representatives, much of which had a hostile tone. For more exhaustive coverage, check out Game Politics and GameSpot. A transcript of Vance's testimony is available from the ESRB website.