Family Entertainment Protection Act, Federal game regulation bill put before Congress

Today senator Hillary Clinton’s (D-NY) office, in collaboration with Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) (both senators who have been very vocal in the video game violence debate), have announced that she has written a bill that will go before Congress when it convenes next week, and will be jointly submitted by the two. The bill, if signed into law, will introduce federal game regulation. Although the retail portion of the bill is similar to some laws passed in Illinois, Michigan and California, the Family Entertainment Protection Act goes much further.

While it would prohibit the sale of Mature, Adults Only or Rating Pending games to minors (with unspecified fines, though the bill doesn’t mention whether the clerk or retail store would be fined), it would also 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.” The findings would then be part of a larger annual analysis of ESRB ratings. “This analysis will help ensure that the ESRB ratings system accurately reflects the content in each game and that the ratings system does not change significantly over time,” read Clinton’s statement.

The bill would also allow private citizens to file complaints with the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP) “if they find content to be misleading or deceptive.” The BCP would issue an annual report on said complaints to Congress as part of the aforementioned annual review.

To justify the act, Clinton’s office made the claim that “video game content is getting more and more violent and sexually explicit.” They cited 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.

“A majority of parents are feeling increasingly victimized by a culture of violence that makes it difficult to protect their children against influences they find to be inappropriate,” read Clinton’s statement. “This bill would help empower parents by putting them back in the driver’s seat. It would ensure that children can’t buy games the video game industry itself has determined to be inappropriate for them.”

Clinton insists however that this bill is meant to protect children, and not to impose on the rights adults have to play whatever they want, and companies have to make whatever they feel like making. “Senator Clinton acknowledges that video games are fun and entertaining and does not support any limitations on the production or sale of games to adults,” read the statement. “This is about protecting children,” she said.

At least two parts of the bill however could have major repercussions for the gaming industry. Not only will Section III of the bill give the FTC the authority to investigate misleading ratings, it will actually require the body “to conduct an investigation to determine whether what happened with GTA: San Andreas is a pervasive problem.” And 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 new, federal game ratings that could replace the current system if sufficient fault was found by the FTC.

We will keep you up to date on this story as more news breaks in the coming weeks. For more information on the ESRB and it’s ratings, check out the official ESRB web-site here.