Video Game Ratings Bill Could Spur Major Changes

Rep. Cliff Sterns, (R-Fla.), has proposed legislation that aims to involve the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the creation of rules governing video game ratings.

The “Truth in Video Game Rating Act,” or H.R. 5912, would usurp the authority of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), a self-regulatory body established by the Entertainment Software Association to independently assign computer and video game content ratings.

H.R. 5912 is the latest development in the onslaught against video game violence. The U.S. House of Representatives Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcomittee in June held a hearing to discuss the topic. Sterns was at the fore of those discussions as leader of the subcomittee, and now leads the charge against what he calls “deceptive” ratings.

New Rules

H.R. 5912 would require any ratings body, such as the ESRB, whose label will appear on a game’s packaging, to review the content of the game “in its entirety” before determining a rating. That is in contrast to the ESRB’s methodology, which relies on the video game publisher’s take on the game’s most objectionable content.

The new bill would also put rules in place to prohibit video game publishers from failing to disclose the content of a game to the ratings board. Further, the new rules would stop any party that mischaracterizes the content of the game from participating in the rating process. The law gives authority to the FTC to determine what defines mischaracterization.

The bill goes on to require the U.S. General Accounting Office and the General Comptroller to study the effectiveness of the ESRB, along with possible alternatives to its current rating system. One option is a universal ratings system that would apply across the board to various mediums including movies, music and TV.

States’ Failed Attempts

There have been several legislative initiatives to combat video game violence at the state level; however, so far, these initiatives have been relatively unsuccessful.

Last December, a California district judge handed down an injunction to halt the implementation of a state law that would restrict video game sales and require the subjective labeling of video games. The judicial rules drew on similar cases in which labeling had been deemed unconstitutional.

Likewise, an Illinois district judge last December handed down an injunction halting the implementation of a state law that would restrict video game sales. The Safe Games Illinois Act would have required retailers to use warning labels in addition to the existing ESRB labels. It would also have forced retailers to post signs within stores explaining the ESRB rating system.

Fed Power

Despite failed attempts by state governments, judges would be much less likely to strike down a Congressional action than a state action, according to In-Stat Senior Analyst Brian O’Rourke. He predicts a significant impact on the industry if H.R. 5912 passes.

“The fact that Congress decides to do something about video game violence is much more serious than one of 50 states doing something or even five of 50 states doing something,” O’Rourke told TechNewsWorld. “The Congress, at least in theory, represents the voice of the entire country.”

O’Rourke, for one, believes it is likely that the bill will gain traction. When people see games like “Grand Theft Auto,” he noted, they tend to be shocked at the level of violence and sexuality portrayed on the screen.

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