March 31st, 2006

Game Industry Reacts to FTC Secret Shopper Survey

Yesteday's secret shopper study results released by the Federal Trade Commission delivered encouraging news about retail compliance with ESRB's video game rating guidelines.

Retailers were quick to react. Hal Halpin, president of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA), the trade association which represents 75% of the retail sector, issued a press release in response to the FTC study results. The IEMA release reads, in part:

"(The FTC study) shows dramatic improvement in retail enforcement of computer and video game ratings over the past five years, a result applauded by the IEMA... The rate at which minors were able to purchase Mature-rated games dropped from 85% in 2000 to today's level of 35% for IEMA member companies."

"I am exceedingly proud of our member companies and their commitment to self-regulation in stemming the sale of Mature-rated games to minors," said IEMA president Hal Halpin (seen at left).

"The FTC's results very clearly indicate that the nation's leading retailers of games have steadily improved and are quickly approaching the compliance rates of the Gold Standard, movie theatre owners. In the two years since our carding policy, we have made significant and tangible progress... And with the industry responding in such a visible and proactive fashion, it is clear that legislative efforts are simply not required."

Halpin also noted a significant improvement in retailer I.D. checks, or "carding" of underage secret shoppers, which jumped from 15% in 2000 to 50% in 2005. The number of retailers providing ratings information to customers also rose dramatically, from 12% to 44% between the 2000 and 2005 surveys. IEMA member stores did even better, carding kids 55% of the time, and posting ESRB info 51% of the time.
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Elmer Fudd Stalls Florida Video Game Legislation

This is NOT an April Fool's gag...

Cartoon character Elmer Fudd - with a little help from Wiley Coyote - has accomplished what all of the video game industry's high-priced lawyers and lobbyists have so far been unable to do - stop a video game bill in its tracks.

Fudd, best known for ceaselessly hunting wascaly wabbits, was cited by the Bradenton Herald as the reason why Florida's SB492, sponsored by State Sen. Alex diaz de la Portilla (R), has been postponed.

It seems that some of Diaz de la Portilla's colleagues in the Florida Senate questioned whether the proposed legislation would affect games featuring cartoon violence and mayhem common in classic children's cartoons. Fudd and Wiley Coyote were specifically mentioned.

So it's back to the drawing board for Diaz de la Portilla as he hunts for legal language which would assure children could be spared the carnage of M-rated games while still being permitted to try and blow the Roadrunner to smithereens.

GP: All we can say is, "Meep-meep..."

Missouri Legislators Move Closer to Video Game Bill Passage

For legislators pushing video game content bills, screen shots and game play videos may be worth at least a thousand words.

It has been widely reported, for instance, that U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) reacted strongly to game footage of Postal, 25 to Life, Clock Tower III and Grand Theft Auto during Wednesday's hearing before a subcommittee of the powerful Senate Judiciary. In Missouri, Rep. Jeff Harris (D, seen at left) used the same strategy Tuesday night during a hearing before the Crime and Public Safety Committee of the Missouri House of Representatives.

Harris, who has been working for more than a year to pass video game legislation in Missouri, showed footage from Postal 2 and GTA Vice City in an effort to persuade legislators to approve HB 1467. The measure would make it illegal to sell M- or AO-rated games to minors, mandate that retailers display rating information and require that games carry an ESRB rating.

As reported previously by GamePolitics, Democrat Harris' bill has had difficulty moving through the Republican-controlled Missouri House. That may be changing, however, given local newspaper accounts of the Republican reactions to the game play videos shown at Tuesday's hearing.

"That's the first time I've seen anything like that, said the committee chair, Rep. Scott Lipke (R). "I think everyone on this committee is appalled by what we just saw... any kind of legislation that aims to protect our children is certainly worth taking a hard look at... We need to keep those types of games out of the hands of our kids."
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Complete Listing of Testimony from Brownback Subcommittee

Professor Dmitri Williams of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Chamaign was kind enough to alert GP to transcripts of witness testimony from Wednesday's Brownback subcommittee hearing. Dr. Williams expects full transcripts of the subcommittee's questioning of the various witnesses to be available in a few weeks.

Prof. Williams is the author of an influential longitudinal study which found that playing a violent online game (Asheron's Call 2) did not cause substantial increases in real-world aggression.

Meanwhile, the always-excellent Terra Nova blog, devoted to MMO issues, has a report on Prof. Williams' Senate appearance.

Bethesda Founder Speaks Out and "Office Massacre" Keels Over

Christopher Weaver (left), co-founder of highly-respected game studio Bethesa Softworks (Elder Scrolls: Oblivion), pens a fascinating op-ed for Next Generation.

Weaver was responding to an earlier Next Gen story detailing a planned mobile phone game, Office Massacre. In speaking out he joins the likes of Warren Spector and Doug Lowenstein in counseling the video game industry to be more prudent in its content choices. Weaver writes, in part:

"The rank stupidity of the people who brought us the Hot Coffee scandal was bad enough... Now comes another bunch of idiots who do not understand the first thing about social responsibility... When will we learn?"

Don't get the impression Weaver favors censorship. He once sued Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and the National Institute on Media and the Family over the inclusion of Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall on a list of ten worst (i.e. - most violent) games. As Weaver continues:

"I am not saying that we should limit our imaginations only to safe areas. But creativity demands that we can do better than copying tragic life events for crass entertainment. Nor am I suggesting we roll over and cater to every self-anointed group who claims that right is on their side. Such people are often very wrong as well."

"So, when I tell you that I believe we as an industry need to be aware of our perception by the public and government, I tell you with personal investment in protecting your freedom to be creative and not kowtow to everyone with an opinion."

"The games industry has grown large enough that it is perceived very differently today than it was even ten years ago. Along with burgeoning financial might comes social responsibility. If we as an industry fail to look carefully at what we do... then someone else will do it for us."

"And in case you think we are somehow protected by (the ESA), even the likes of... Doug Lowenstein can't make gold out of things like office shooting sprees... What comes next, Virtual Columbine?

GP: There is both wisdom and credibility to what Weaver is saying. Perhaps not coincidentally, Next Gen also reports today that developer Alten8 has scrubbed plans for Office Massacre.

Next Grand Theft Auto Title...

Kotaku is reporting that the site of the next GTA title is up; that the game will be GTA Chicago; that it will be a PlayStation 3 exclusive planned for release in October, 2007.

OOPS! It's an April Fools joke. GP did a quick check of the domain registration info and found it is confidential, not corporate Rockstar or Take-Two as might be expected. Also, here's a great, big clue from the last few lines of the domain registration:

Domain servers in listed order:

As I type this, Kotaku's servers are crashed and Brian Crecente can't make the necessary corrections to the apocryphal GTA Chicago story. Here's what Brian told GP moments ago:

"I just heard back from Rockstar. I asked them if the site was for real or a joke or perhaps a bit of fan fiction. Their reply: 'This is not a R* site, and as such, is a hoax.'"

Good gag. Now whoever perpetrated this April Fools mischief must atone for their sins by purchasing one dozen assorted Pixelante T-shirts.