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

By Chris Remo, Jun 15, 2006 12:40pm PDT 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.

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25 Threads | 86 Comments

  • HI :)

    IMHO, the R congresman from Florida doesn't have his facts straight and correct.

    Today, most people that play videogames are adults. (as all research show). Gamerdad even had a note on this sometime ago - showing that nearly half of all gamer parents are - surprisingly - women.

    Maybe this was true 20 years ago, when most of the present adult
    gaming community, were children. But now, as these children have grown up --- this is not true anymore - that most gamers that play video games are children.

    And yes, most T and (even some E) games do reward violent actions.
    But T games reward violent actions for killing zombies, and have a cartoony feel to them - much like the Tom & Jerry cartoons from so long ago. The point is that T games do not reward the PC (player character) for random killling or killing just for the fun of it. Most T games do reward players for
    killing enemies out of this world, like zombies and monsters such as goblins, orcs, and such. And mainly these killings are not been done for fun -but as a mean to get the story going - or as means to solve certain quests which also requires that the player behind the PC - actually thinks about what he or she is doing - in order to move the quest along.

    As for the ESRB, I live in Europe, where the board actually plays the game - and hence rate the games, based in its actual content, not on what the game develeoper/publisher themselves report to, say ESRB. Last years hot coffee was a mini-game, that showed people in various sexual situaions. And this mini-game could only be accessed by
    getting a code from a third party mod (I think).

    Anyway, the reason why politicians (and some people) are angry at the ESRB - is the fact that TES4: Oblivion alleledgly had some sexual content
    However, this is simply not true. The truth is that in one of the files containing the content for 'female upper body' there was a texture (file)
    that was locked. And a third party mod(ification) unlocked this feature, thus being able to make 'the female n...word.' (and apparently the nnnn...can't be shown in a T rated game in the US).

    Don't get me wrong --- I'm all for the games are being rated --- but the rating should be fair. And not give in to political pressure that obviously
    would say that 'all games are violent or sexual.' And this is not true.

    Today, the most selling game of all times are in fact 'the sims series' as well as the 'myst series'.

    As for the explicit sexual acts --- I have seen none of them in all the over 20+ games I have played in the last 8-10 years or so. [The only exception was the locked away content in GTA: San Andreas] But then, again, I don't know what the congreswomen from Tennessee consider 'explicit sexual acts. I do know that in China and in the Middle East even a kiss in a video, or in movie, is consideres to be an 'explicit sexual act....']

    IMHO, the reason why politicians are treating games, and the gaming industry in such a negative/hostile tone is that they are not informed on the subject. Another reason is this: It is a new industry, barely 20 years old (or young). And all new technologies meet opposition, i.e. radio, tv, cartoons, all met the same oppositon as video games are doing today -- and even the same arguments: Violence, making people stupid and such.

    I hope that politicians in the US (as well as in other countries) will open their eyes - and realize/recognize that video games are here to stay -- and they that they are (the video games, not the politicians ;) ) fun to play - for adults as well as for children.