Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Boom Goes the Dynamite

Well, the chickens have come home to roost.

Remember all the times we've talked about how the video game industry has essentially ignored the controversy over the sale of violent video games to underage consumers? How their voluntary ratings system (the ESRB) is so procedurally flawed that it's nothing more than a marketing tool? How they've done nothing but issue press releases full of platitudes?

Here's an excerpt from the July 15th column:
The Entertainment Software Association is allowing everyone else to control the pace and path of this discussion. Fires are burning and they’re blithely claiming that they can’t even smell smoke.

Hysteria can only exist in the absence of data.

And that, my friends, is the problem.

How easy is it for underage consumers to buy games with an “M” or “AO” rating? Well, we have absolutely no idea. And because we have no idea, it creates a huge window of opportunity for politicians, who are opportunistic by nature, to exploit the issue to pile up political capital.

Now here’s the question to the ESA: you don’t want underage consumers buying inappropriate games, do you? Then why the hell haven’t you established whether that problem actually exists? Would you rather let the freight train of stupid gather speed until it runs over you?

Well, boys, the stupid train just ran your asses over.

Senator Hillary Clinton today introduced the "Family Entertainment Protection Act." Here's an excerpt from Gamespot
This afternoon, Clinton's office announced she has written a bill that would institute federal regulation of games sales. Co-authored by longtime game critic Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the Family Entertainment Protection Act will be jointly submitted by the two legislators when Congress reconvenes in two weeks.

If made law, the Family Entertainment Protection Act would be a "a prohibition against any business for selling or renting a Mature, Adults-Only, or Ratings Pending game to a person who is younger than seventeen." It would punish violators with unspecified fines, though it did not specify if the clerk who sold the game or the retailer where said clerk worked would be punished. "This provision is not aimed at punishing retailers who act in good faith to enforce the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) system," read a statement from Clinton's office.

Good luck determining what "good faith" means in a legal sense on that one.

We saw this coming, though, didn't we? Check out some of the other provisions of this bill.
It would authorize "the FTC to conduct an annual, random audit of retailers to determine how easy it is for young people to purchase Mature and Adults Only video games and report the findings to Congress."

Hey! They're collecting data! What a crazy idea! But wait, someone else already did--but it wasn't the video game industry.

As justification for the act, Clinton's office claims that "video game content is getting more and more violent and sexually explicit." It cites the recent 10th Annual MediaWise Video and Computer Game Report Card, issued by the National Institute on Media and the Family, which gave the industry a "D+" and said the ESRB was "beyond repair." Also, the study's secret shopper program found that 42 percent of the time boys under 17 were able to buy M-rated games from retailers, with underage girls succeeding 46 percent of the time.

Oops! And without any reliable data to counter, the ESA is dead in the water. They've pissed their pants and nobody's going to hand them a towel.

Here's more.
An even more ominous-sounding aspect of Section III is how it will empower the FTC to "take appropriate action if [Congress] determines that there is a pervasive problem" with the ESRB's rating system. This means a new, federal game ratings which could replace the current system if sufficient fault was found by the FTC.

Federal game ratings because the current system, under any analysis, is a joke. The ESA has maintained that the ESRB is just fantastic, and put out tons of meaningless poll numbers to "substantiate" it. But the game rating procedure, which we've discussed at length, is totally lacking in credibility. Now, instead of just fixing something that they control, they've lost control.

This really pisses me off because EVERYONE except the ESA knew this day was coming. But instead of taking substantive action to manage the situation, they've put out bullshit press releases with nothing in them but air. They've totally mismanaged the situation and now it's bit them in the ass. Sure, the industry would have been opening a door if they had started their own program to collect data on the ability of underage consumers to buy inappropriate content. But opening that door would have been preferrable, by far, to having the federal government break it down.

Now the ESA has to wait for the legislation to pass (I believe it will, even though it's clearly unconstitutional) and then hope that the courts strike it down. That sure seems like a powerful position for the ESA to be in, huh?

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