Senator wants to ban 'deceptive' video game ratings

Republican Sam Brownback makes another attempt at new regulations for the video game industry and its rating outfits.
Written by Anne Broache, Contributor
A U.S. Senate Republican with presidential ambitions has renewed his push to slap new regulations on the video and computer game industry, including a ban on "deceptive" labels by ratings outfits.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) on Tuesday reintroduced the Truth in Video Game Rating Act, first proposed last September. It calls for requiring video game rating organizations to play all games "in their entirety" before issuing labels and prohibiting game developers from withholding any "hidden" game content from raters. It would also punish ratings groups that "grossly mischaracterize" any game's content.

"The current video game ratings system is not as accurate as it could be because reviewers do not see the full content of games and do not even play the games they rate," Brownback, who is expected to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, said in a statement.

The proposed regulations represent another reaction to a high-profile scandal surrounding the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In July 2005, reports surfaced that a readily downloadable modification could unlock sexually explicit scenes in the best-selling game, prompting bipartisan outcry from Capitol Hill and a federal investigation.

The bill's introduction drew opposition from the Entertainment Software Association, which lobbies for the video game industry. An ESA executive said the group believes the existing rating process is already sufficiently reliable and "remarkably useful" to parents.

"Sen. Brownback's bill not only attempts to address problems that don't exist, but his recommendations are unworkable and will not help consumers," Carolyn Rauch, a senior vice president at ESA, said in an e-mailed statement. "For instance, how does one play a game in its 'entirety' when a game has no defined end?"

A representative for the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), the video game industry's primary self-regulatory body, said the organization had no comment at this time.

The ESRB describes at its Web site how it goes about evaluating games. It says it requires game makers to submit answers to a "detailed questionnaire" about their products and a videotape or DVD that displays all "pertinent content," including the most extreme instances of sex, violence, language, drugs and gambling. They must also turn over "pertinent content that is not playable, but will exist in the game code on the final game disc."

After investigating the Grand Theft Auto incident, ESRB opted to change the game's rating from M (Mature) to AO (Adults-Only). The game's publishers, New York-based Take-Two Interactive Software and Rockstar Games, went on to reach a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission in which they agreed to "clearly and prominently disclose on product packaging and in any promotion or advertisement...content relevant to the rating." The companies also agreed to pay $11,000 for each future violation.

Brownback's bill also reflects his suspicion that those engaged in the rating process have conflicts of interest. It proposes directing the Government Accountability Office to issue a report on the effectiveness of the ESRB's rating system, with particular attention to whether the process would be better served if "developed and administered by persons or entities with no financial interest in the video and computer game industry."

Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) each introduced nearly identical proposals last September in the House of Representatives. Neither Brownback's earlier attempt nor the House efforts ever progressed to a vote.

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