On Wednesday Senator Sam Brownback announced his bid for the White House in 2008 and reintroduced his Truth in Video Game Rating Act, which proposes to overhaul the way that video games sold in the US are currently rated.
The bill directs the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) to prescribe rules to prohibit what Brownback described as "deceptive conduct in the rating of video and computer games and for other purposes".
Video and computer games sold at mass market retailers across the United States are, by and large, rated by the non-profit ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board). The ESRB provides both an age rating and a content descriptor, to help buyers (and their parents, in the case of minors) decide whether a game is appropriate - that information is then put on the box.
Like the ratings system used for films, this procedure is purely voluntary, but many major retailers won't sell games without an ESRB rating. Brownback is concerned that the ESRB doesn't play all the way through the games it rates - instead, it depends on pre-rendered footage, scripts and other content provided by the game developer and publisher to make its recommendation.
"Game reviewers must have access to the entire game for their ratings to accurately reflect its content," Brownback said in a statement.
The legislation calls for the FTC to prohibit rating games only on partial content, as well as withholding content or hiding content for rating. That appears superficially to head off any future repeats of the controversy surrounding Grand Theft Auto, which raised eyebrows when it was discovered that players could watch explicit sex acts in the game. The resulting media row caused the game's publisher to recall it and republish it, edited.
But that content was only accessible with the aid of a 'mod', an add-on that unlocked previously hidden content. The bill, as written, has no language that addresses what happens when game is modded.
The bill also calls for the FTC to examine the effectiveness of the ESRB, to determine whether the content ratings system should be peer-reviewed, and to look at the feasibility of setting up an independent ratings system. Senator Brownback also wants the FTC to consider employing a "universal ratings system" that stretches across film, television and games.
"No one takes the reliability of video game ratings more seriously than the ESRB. If it is Senator Brownback's intention to ensure the reliability of video game ratings, then legislation, and in particular his bill as described in his press release, is simply not the answer," said an ESRB spokesperson. "Senator Brownback's bill not only attempts to address problems that don't exist, but his recommendations are unworkable and will not help consumers. For instance, how does one play a game in its 'entirety' when a game has no defined end?"
Other critics of the bill have had similar complaints. Many top-tier games can take fifty or more hours of continuous play to complete, compared to an hour for a television programme or two hours for a film. Expecting an ESRB reviewer to exhaust every nook and cranny of a game isn't viable, they say.
"The fact is that the rating system works and ESRB's raters review all of the content they need to in order to appropriately rate the game. Parents find it remarkably useful, and according to independent sources, even more so than those used by other media," said the ESRB spokesperson. "The ESRB enforcement system is forceful, proven and effective, and according to the FTC, is a model for other industries. We will continue working with groups like the National PTA and others to ensure that parents are educated about the ESRB ratings and why it is important that they use them. Instead of proposing government regulation, we invite Senator Brownback to join our efforts, which are providing a real benefit to parents."
Brownback first introduced the Truth in Video Game Rating Act in September 2006. The bill was referred to the senate commerce, science and transportation committee, but was not voted on and died at the close of the 109th Congress. With the new year started a new congress, and Brownback is now reintroducing the bill for further consideration.