New bill: No ID, no 'mature' video games for you

Two Capitol Hill politicians want to pass legislation requiring children to show identification before being allowed to buy or rent games with a "mature" rating.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read

Editor's note: Updated at 11:35 a.m. PST to include additional information from Matheson's office about the bill.

A new congressional proposal seeks to make it harder for kids to buy or rent games like the runaway sales hit "Grand Theft Auto IV" (scene pictured here), which bears a "Mature" rating, meaning it's considered unsuitable for kids younger than 17. Rockstar Games

A new bill in the U.S. Congress would force retailers to card kids attempting to buy video games bearing "mature" or "adults only" ratings.

In addition to the identification-checking requirement, Reps. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.)'s Video Game Ratings Enforcement Act, introduced on Wednesday, would also require stores to post explanations of what the ratings, devised by the industry-backed Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), actually mean, according to a press release. A copy of the bill's text was not immediately available on Thursday.

Rep. Jim Matheson U.S. Congress

"As a parent, I know that I'm the first line of defense against my kids playing Mature-rated video games," Matheson said in a statement. "But parents can't be everywhere monitoring everything and some reasonable, common sense rules ought to be in place to back parents up."

For the record, games with an M-rating, by the ESRB's description, are considered suitable for people age 17 and older and "may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language." Those with an AO or Adults Only rating "may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity" and are recommended only for people age 18 or older.

Whether the new rules are necessary may be up for debate. Some stores already attempt to verify the age of game purchasers. Wal-Mart, for example, says on its Web site that it already posts information about the ESRB ratings and has programmed its cash registers to automatically prompt sales clerks to check the age of the customer when M-rated games are scanned. GameStop also checks IDs before selling M-rated games.

And interestingly, just after the bill was introduced, the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday released the results of a new "undercover" shopper study, which found the number of incidents of stores selling M-rated video games to teens has plummeted since 2000.

On average, only 20 percent of the 13-to-16-year-old shoppers were able to purchase the games from stores like Game Stop/EB Games, Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and Toys R Us, down from an average of 42 percent in 2006 and 85 percent in 2000. (Some stores recorded a far lower percentage--only 6 percent of those shoppers were successful in purchasing M-rated games from Game Stop, for instance.)

The Parents Television Council, a group whose mission is to shield children from sex, violence and profanity in television and other media, applauded the bill's introduction, pointing to its concerns about the Mature-rated Grand Theft Auto IV, which has already broken sales records within the first week of its release.

"Video game ratings supposedly exist to protect children from material that is created for adults, but there is no consequence for irresponsible retailers who repeatedly sell these games to children," PTC president Tim Winter said in a statement. "The importance of this issue cannot be overstated when considering the array of games that include content too deplorable and disgusting to describe in detail."

Previous legislative attempts to limit childrens' access to violent or sexually-themed video games, however, have not met with much success in the courts. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court's decision to block a Minnesota law that would have imposed up to a $25 fine on minors younger than 17 caught buying or renting video games rated "M" for mature or "AO" for adults-only, citing, among other things, First Amendment concerns. Similar rulings have come down in other federal courts with regard to laws in Louisiana, Michigan, and California.

The Entertainment Software Association, which represents the video game industry, said it shares the politicians' goal of ensuring children have parental approval before playing certain titles but disagreed with their proposed method of doing so.

"Empowering parents, not enacting unconstitutional legislation, is the best way to control the games children play," said ESA President Michael Gallagher.

A Matheson aide told CNET News.com that her boss believes his bill is crafted narrowly enough to survive any constitutional challenge that may arise.

The new bill joins a handful of other proposals related to video games that have surfaced in this session of Congress, including new attempts to outlaw "deceptive" video game ratings. That legislation was a reaction primarily to the "Hot Coffee" scandal a few years ago, in which a readily downloadable modification to the best-selling game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas could unlock sexually explicit scenes.