An expansion of Utah's truth in advertising laws to impose fines on video game retailers who violate their own voluntary policies of not selling M-rated content to minors is on the verge of passing, and the ESRB is speaking out.
The bill distinguishes itself from past game retail legislation, which traditionally creates new laws restricting what games can be sold. Instead, the Utah bill expands the reach of existing strictures, such that retailers who ostensibly adhere to the ESRB's voluntary rating system but are found to sell an M-rated game to minors could be hit with fines or even potential lawsuits for violating truth in advertising.
The problem, says the ESRB, is that rather than make retailers accountable for their responsibilities to the ESRB rating system, this legislation would simply serve as an incentive to drop the voluntary system altogether -- after all, if they never claim to support the content ratings, they cannot be charged with violating such a claim.
In an open letter to parents and leaders in Utah published by consumer weblog Kotaku, ESRB president Patricia Vance urges against the bill -- and notes that most retailers voluntarily comply with ratings all but 6 percent of the time.
"According to a recent audit, Utah video game retailers enforce their store policies regarding the sale of M-rated games an impressive 94% of the time – without any laws or requirements that they do so," writes Vance.
"That level of compliance took many years to achieve, and speaks to the strong commitment of video game retailers to do the right thing."
"The unfortunate reality is that it would introduce a liability that will likely force many retailers to seriously consider abandoning their voluntary policies and ratings education programs, undoing years of progress made on behalf of parents and their children," she adds."
Vance notes that the rate of ratings compliance nationwide for video game retail "far [surpasses]" that of DVD or CD sales -- and that it's grown from only 15 percent in 2000 to 80 percent in May 2008.
"The unraveling of this substantial progress would be a tragic consequence, depriving parents of the assurance and control they currently have with respect to deciding which games their children can purchase and play," said Vance. At 94 percent, Utah's compliance is already higher than the national average.
The legislation, she says, "would effectively penalize responsible retailers that have policies, and provide safe harbor for retailers that refuse to adopt a responsible policy in the first place. That is downright senseless."
"If the goal is to make sure our children are playing age-appropriate games, there is a better way."
Vance urged the use of ESRB ratings and self-education on the part of parents, and cited an FTC survey that found that 59 percent of parents "never" let their kids play M-rated games.
"The bottom line is that parents are more than capable of utilizing tools like the ratings to make the right choices for their families," she says.
"Punishing retailers for promoting responsible sales policies is irrational and counter-productive. I write in the sincere hope that Utah chooses to empower its parents with information rather than undo the substantial progress made by retailers to date to serve the best interests of Utah's children."