On June 14, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection held a hearing on violent video games. The hearing was called as a follow-up to the approval, 355-21, of a resolution (H. Res. 376) in July 2005. The resolution requested that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigate whether the publishers of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas deceived the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) to avoid an adults-only rating. Grand Theft Autocontained hidden sexual content which players could access by using a software modification easily found on the Internet.
Patricia E. Vance, president of the ESRB, explained the current voluntary rating system for video games. The rating system contains rating symbols and content descriptors which are affixed to each game sold. The hearing focused on mature, or M-rated, and adults only, or AO-rated, games. Mature games, for children aged 17 and up, may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, and/or strong language; adults-only games contain prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity.
Lydia Parnes, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC, discussed the commission’s monitoring of the marketing of video games to children under 17. “Although retailers have steadily improved their record of denying under-age children access to M-rated [mature-rated] games, a significant percentage of children sent in as undercover shoppers are still able to buy these games,” she said. The FTC’s latest report on children’s access to mature games was released on March 30, 2006, and found that “42 percent of the secret shoppers—children between the ages of 13 and 16—who attempted to buy an M-rated game without a parent were able to purchase one, compared to 69 percent in 2003.”
Dr. Kimberly Thompson, associate professor and director of the Kids Risk Project at the Harvard School of Public Health testified that ESRB ratings can be misleading: “64 percent of E-rated (for “Everyone”) video games contained violence…in a random sample of 81 T-rated (for “Teen”) 98 percent involved intentional violence…90 percent rewarded or required the player to injure characters, 69 percent rewarded or required the player to kill.” Dr. Thompson said that the ESRB should not rely on publisher disclosure regarding a game’s content, but should instead “play each and every game prior to assigning its age-based rating and content descriptors.” She continued, saying, “Given this research, we believe several improvements to the rating system are needed, and that Congress should ensure that the industry has incentives to improve its ratings.”
Also testifying were Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, Gary Severson, senior vice president of merchandising for Wal-Mart, Dr. Warren Buckleitner, editor of the Children’s Technology Review, and Dr. David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family.