Senators target 'graphic' video games

Clinton and Lieberman call for a crackdown on sex and violence in video games, while another senator vows to target "indecency."

A new front in the political wars over sex and violence in video games opened Tuesday when Senators Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman called for a new crackdown on the industry by the federal government.

Sex and violence in video games has spiraled out of control, the two Democratic senators claimed, pointing to a recent flap over whether Rockstar Games embedded a sex-themed scene in its popular Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas video game.

Parents should be able to make "sure their kids can't walk into a store and buy a video game that has graphic, violent and pornographic content," Clinton said in a statement saying the actual bill will be introduced when the Senate returns from vacation on Dec. 12.

The announcement coincides with Tuesday's release of a report by the National Institute on Media and the Family, which called the industry-operated rating system for video games "beyond repair."

Pressure on the video game industry also came from a third political front: Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, who convened a full-day hearing Tuesday on the topic of "decency" in TV and radio broadcasts and through computer games. America lacks "the kind of moral compass the country should have for our young people," Stevens warned.

The political net effect was to put the industry, already reeling from a series of state laws targeting video games, on the defensive. (It had hoped to defuse criticism with an announcement a day earlier that Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony will include parental controls in their next-generation consoles.)

Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association who testified before the Senate hearing, said in a statement sent to CNET that the Clinton-Lieberman bill was unconstitutional and unnecessary. "If enacted, the bill will be struck down as have similar bills passed in several states," Lowenstein said. "So while this bill is positioned as a pro-family measure, in truth it will leave parents no better off."

The "Family Entertainment Protection Act"
Details on the measure, tentatively titled the Family Entertainment Protection Act, remains scarce. Lieberman's office refused to provide details, a sign that the proposed legislation may not been finalized.

But a summary that the two senators distributed says that the bill will prohibit the sale of "mature" video games to anyone younger than 18 years old; order the Federal Trade Commission to "investigate misleading ratings" on video games; solicit public complaints about video games; and require an "annual, independent analysis of game ratings" separate from the one currently created by the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

The ESRB already rates games based on categories including alcohol, blood, violence, sex and nudity. In addition to a detailed description typically found on the back of a video game box, the board also creates a general seven-level rating indicating the game is appropriate for ages including "early childhood," "teen," or "adults only."

Those ratings are the ones that have regularly come under fire by the National Institute on Media and the Family, a Minnesota-based advocacy group that has been publishing a "scorecard" on the video game industry for the last decade.

Its most recent edition gives the industry a "D-" for retailers' real-world enforcement of sales to minors, an "F" for ratings accuracy, and a "B" for retailers' stated policies. "This year it appears that retailers are actually more negligent in enforcing their policies than last year," the scorecard says. "It seems that retailers would rather appear as if they care about children than actually take simple steps to protect them."

Clinton has been a critic of video games even before the sex-scandal involving Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas erupted in July. Clinton said in March, for instance: "Probably one of the biggest complaints I've heard is about some of the video games, particularly 'Grand Theft Auto,' which has so many demeaning messages about women and so encourages violent imagination and activities and it scares parents."

Rockstar, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, has said the so-called "Hot Coffee" modification--which permits a player to simulate sex with a woman--was based on a "determined group of hackers" who performed "significant technical modifications and reverse-engineering" of the game. It was subsequently slapped with an Adults Only rating.

Criticism of the video game industry has been a bipartisan phenomenon. The House of Representatives voted 355 to 21 for a resolution calling for an investigation of Grand Theft Auto, and a similar resolution was introduced in the Senate.