Some call for greater action by companies to prevent explicit content from getting into minors' hands.
At a hearing here, members of a U.S. House of Representatives panel on consumer protection said gaming companies aren't doing enough to protect children from explicit products and called for a re-examination of the voluntary ratings system used by the industry.
Committee Chairman Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, and others also suggested that certain explicit games don't deserve traditional free speech protections. "Building a video game around a premise based on very realistic, cold-blooded assassinations of innocent bystanders and police" is "more akin to hate speech, not free speech," he said.
The meeting brought a renewed focus on a controversy revealed last year related to the wildly popular game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." The committee played a brief video of shooting scenes from the game, which created an uproar last year when the public learned of a sexually explicit scene embedded in its code.
The Federal Trade Commission recently published a proposed settlement with the game's developers after completing a yearlong investigation requested by outraged members of Congress. The agreement would require the game to strictly adhere to ratings rules or face fines of $11,000 per violation.
That deal came under attack by Michigan Republican Fred Upton, who said it provided "no consequences" for developer Rockstar Games. "I would've liked to think they would be fined millions of dollars for the trash they put out across the country with the label they got," he said.
Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC's consumer protection bureau, said she understood those concerns, "but the fact is, simply, the commission does not have the statutory authority to impose civil penalties for Rockstar's conduct."
Upton said Congress may need to consider new laws to give the regulators heightened powers.
Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky said she was "especially concerned about those who, in their zeal to make a buck, make massive loopholes for those under 17 to get games rated 'Mature' or above." She said it's "easy as the click of the mouse to get mature-rated games from online stores like Wal-Mart."
Customers must check a box indicating they are older than 17 before being clear for online purchases of "Mature"-rated games, and the retailer doesn't sell "Adults-only" games, Wal-Mart Senior Vice President Gary Severson told the panel. When pressed by Schakowsky, he acknowledged that the check-box procedure is a "limitation of the Internet" and worth another look.
A couple of pending proposals in Congress would impose stiff fines on businesses that sold video games with a "Mature" or "Adults-only" rating to minors. But it's unclear how such bills will fare, as a handful of state and local laws criminalizing the sale of such games to minors have already been tossed out by courts as unconstitutional.
"For that reason, I believe self-regulation (by the video game industry) remains the best method in providing information to parents," said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat.
Such self-policing will only be effective if the government forces the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the organization that rates the games, to make its review process more transparent and to submit new games to independent researchers for additional vetting, said Kimberly Thompson, a Harvard University professor who studies video game content. Her suggestions drew praise from Stearns.
Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, which represents the video and computer game industry, cautioned politicians not to overreact, reminding them that 85 percent of the games sold last year were deemed appropriate for children under 17. "No rating system, no parental control system will work unless the parent is engaged," he said. "But if the parent wants to be involved, wants to be informed, the tools are there."