It's time for yet another "we have to save the children from video games" story. This time the news came from the Parents Television Council. On Monday the PTC posted a "PTC Action Alert" after they claim a 'secret shopper' campaign proved that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) labels on games weren't keeping mature titles out of kids' hands. The PTC says they sent minors aged 12 to 16 to 109 retail outlets in 11 states and that in 21 cases the minors were able to purchase "Rated M for Mature" video game software. They urge parents to speak out on this issue and to refuse to buy games from stores where age-screening doesn't take place.
I heard about this study via a post at Gamasutra which contains a response from ESRB Director of Communications Eliot Mizrachi who said:
Altogether, retailers’ rate of restriction for Mature-rated games is the highest of any entertainment product tested by the Federal Trade Commission, including DVDs, CDs and admittance to R-rated films in theaters. Putting aside their questionable methodology – which precludes their studies from being compared to those commissioned by the FTC - the Parent Television Council’s mystery shopper results actually reveal significant improvement despite their efforts to disguise that fact. Frankly, the latest PTC member sting operation actually verifies the effectiveness of the ESRB rating system and the ever-increasing support it receives from retailers...
The significant improvement he alludes to is when compared to a similar experiment the PTC ran in June 2008. Looking at dedicated gaming stores like Gamestop and Toys R Us, in 2008 the PTC visited 12 Gamestops and 5 Toys R Us stores and their shoppers were able to obtain Mature titles in 8% and 40% of the stores, respectively. In the recent study they visited 17 Gamestops and 6 Toys R Us stores and their shoppers weren't able to purchase an M rating game in any of them. Sounds like progress to me. Gamasutra also refers us to a 2009 post in which they reported on a similar 'secret shopper' test run by the FTC. The government's findings were much the same (80% of the time their shoppers were turned away, compared to 81% of the time for the PTC) but their spin was completely different. The FTC's report said:
"Although there remains room for improvement –- particularly in the area of Internet advertising -– the video game industry outpaces the movie and music industries in the three key areas that the Commission has been studying for the past decade," the report concluded. It defines its "key areas" as "restricting target-marketing of mature-rated products to children; clearly and prominently disclosing rating information; and restricting children's access to mature-rated products at retail."
So why is the PTC targeting videogames right now? Because on November 2nd the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Schwarzenegger vs. EMA. Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill placing government-mandated restrictions on the sale of video games to minors. This bill had stalled but the PTC lobbied to get it revived and passed. The law was then blocked by a U.S. District Court Judge and ultimately deemed unconstitutional by California 9th Circuit Court, and now it's up for Supreme Court review. Let's hear some comments. Does the PTC have a point? Should the government be in charge of what games your kids can or cannot buy, or are clearly marked labels on games, and maybe some good parenting, enough? Anecdotally, my observations have been that that parents are often the worst offenders. As a video game buyer myself, on several occasions I've seen parents get annoyed with store clerks who point out that the game the parent is buying their child isn't age-appropriate. I've seen a father ream a clerk out after the clerk refused to sell the a child a mature game, and the child had to go get dad out of the car to be present in order to purchase it. I'm all for keeping kids away from M-rated games, and I can't fault the PTC for calling on parents to 'vote with their wallets' and only shop at stores that enforce the ratings. In fact that sounds like solid, good advice to me. But I don't think we need new laws to keep mature games away from kids: I think the ratings system works as well as any law would. What do you think?