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ESRB's Vance Urges Against Utah Violent Game Bill
ESRB's Vance Urges Against Utah Violent Game Bill
March 6, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander, Chris Remo

March 6, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander, Chris Remo
More: Console/PC

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."

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Dave Endresak
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In my view, there's one big problem with all of these reports and the activities associated with them. Namely, there is no evidence that experiencing any type of media that has been subjectively rated by an individual or group of individuals as being appropriate for one age and not another has any predictable consequences, and certainly no predictable negative consequences, despite numerous attempts to prove negative "media effects". "Protecting" children (however one subjectively defines the term, "child") only results in censorship of knowledge and restriction of learning.

At the same time, there's one important point about which Ms. Vance and others are totally correct: if one chooses to become a parent, one must actually perform the duties associated with being a parent, and do so in whatever way one subjectively defines the concept of "parenting". However, that never means attempting to force one's own views of what is and is not acceptable onto other people.

That's the key problem with all ratings systems and their associated censorship: they are subjective in nature and thus impair the free access to knowledge and learning. After all, this is exactly why the American Library Association continually fights to keep works of literature off the banned book list. Sure, some individuals may feel that certain books have content that they do not wish to see and do not wish to have in their households, but that doesn't mean they have the right to attempt to force their views onto other people and prevent other people from having the freedom of choice to experience such content. The same principle applies to all forms of media entertainment, or even various forms of science and philosophy.

What should happen (but does not) is that any and all content should be valid for any creative effort (and any views should be valid for scientific discussion, etc), and accurate descriptions and packaging for any products should be required with punishment for false advertising and/or proven deliberate attempts at misdirection and omission. In addition, creative works and ideas should be open to discussion without censure or any form of retribution, and with an understanding to accept differing views expressed by others.

Until we learn this lesson, I think that we will remain a rather immature species whose members are unable to accept and understand their own diverse views about their existence. On an immediate level, we will continue to see that mass market products (and indeed almost any form of product or endeavor) will continue to be "filtered" (i.e. censored) by vocal and/or powerful members of our population. I do not see how this can be considered an environment that allows creative freedom and innovation, let alone encourages such efforts.

Robert Zamber
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I accidently hit the submit button in the previous post: so please ignore as it was incomplete.

Kudos Dave... well put! The essence of what 'these' lawmakers do: create policies out of hollow opinions (opinions with no reality). very much like the crisis we face with sex in this nation: they want to push the ideology of abstinence on our young people, without a comprehensive sex education that deals with the realities of "being" a sexual being. This stupidity resonates throughout the fabric of our entire society (In the US). A well informed, thinking society, would be very difficult to control through the media mainstay.

Spencer McFerrin
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Interesting point, Dave. Just for clarification, you're saying you would eliminate the "rating" system, but keep the warnings of "sexual content," "intense violence," "blood and gore," etc. on the packaging? I've actually never heard that idea before, and it makes a lot of sense. However, that idea will probably not come to fruition for a long time (it puts wayyyyy to much responsibility on the parent).

As for this article, I do hope enough voters in Utah have access to Vance's letter, as I do believe she raises a valid concern. While I don't think (assuming this law is passed) anyone would have to worry about the Game Stops and Game Crazies of the industry backing away from ESRB, I could definitely see a lot of the smaller private game retailers choosing to opt out of enforcing ESRB.

If this law was passed on a multi-state or national level, then I think we would start to see a balancing act between supporting ESRB and risking fines for having some games "slip through the cracks," and not supporting the ESRB (risking lawsuits from over-zealous parents).

Mike Lopez
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The ESRB and the industry as a whole really need to make a first time substantial effort to educate the public about the demographics of game players and especially the fact that the average gamer is significantly older than the vast majority of society believes. They also need to educate the public about the historic censorship challenges all new media has had in the past (i.e. movies and comics in their infancy) and how those censorship attempts proved to be unnecessary and fruitless in the long run. Until the public comes to understand these factors they will continue to think the average game player is a 14 year old boy and that it is society's duty to protect them from the devilish mysteries of video games.

The on-going apathy towards public education in game industry matters is pretty pathetic. Come on industry trade groups and lobbyists! Get off your butts and start some advertising campaigns to educate and sway the opinions of the public BEFORE these on-going fears of the unknown and ignorance generate even more of these dangerous law suits (the press coverage of which further sways the public against us).

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It's the same thing every time with music, movies, and comics. This is a non issue and that is why people don't try to change the public's opinions, because why struggle to change opinions today when they'll naturally change as the video game generations grow older. By the time you actually are able to educate and convince, if that is even possible, current generations about video games the video game generations will have already taken over and be understanding of the whole situation.