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Sparks Fly at Video Game Hearing on Capitol Hill

Yesterday's hearing before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection was a contentious one, especially for the video game industry and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Among witnesses, ESRB president Patricia Vance came under the heaviest fire. It was clearly a day on which the assembled members of Congress opted to use the bully pulpit to drive home their collective frustrations with the video game industry.

Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-FL, seen at left) opened the hearing by paying homage to the creativity, fun and educational value of games. For the industry, it was all downhill from there. Stearns, like virtually all of his committee colleagues, was harshly critical of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Stearns also called on the FTC to make a full report to Congress on its recently-completed Hot Coffee investigation, a theme that was repeated by other subcommittee members during the hearing.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX), who identified himself as a Civilization IV fan, chimed in on the FTC-bashing, calling the organization "tardy" in reporting to Congress. Barton added, "I am fed up with games like Grand Theft Auto being marketed under false pretenses."

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) was also angry. "I guess I thought the FTC would have had some more teeth than they apparently have... I'm not at all happy with the consent decree... In essence there are no consequences. None... I would like to have thought that (Take-Two and Rockstar) would have been able to be fined for millions of dollars for the trash they put out across this country."

Testifying about the rating system, ESA president Doug Lowenstein said, "It may not be perfect, but we have really made a commitment to working with parents." Lowenstein also showed a video clip of several non-controversial best-sellers, including Tiger Woods Golf, Age of Empires III, and The Sims 2. The committee seemed to grow impatient with the ESA video, however, and it was ended prematurely.

Lowenstein repeated a line he has used to good effect previously, saying, "Defining this industry based on its most controversial titles would be like defining the film industry based on Kill Bill, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Natural Born Killers..."

ESRB president Patricia Vance raised a spirited defense of the ESRB system, saying, "Nobody takes these issues more seriously than we do." Vance's testimony, however, did not play as well when the ESRB president took verbal shots at two witnesses scheduled to testify after her - Harvard's Kim Thompson and Dr. David Walsh of the National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF). Thompson, of course, was co-author of a recent study which found that ESRB content descriptors were inconsistently applied. Walsh gave the ESRB a failing grade on his organization's 2005 Annual Video Game Report Card.

For her part, researcher Kim Thompson suggested that the ESRB might do well to actually play the games which it rates (the ESRB relies primarily on game publishers to tell the ratings body what type of content games contain). Thompson added she would like to see the ESRB reveal how it performs the mechanics of the rating process. She also took issue with Patricia Vance's criticism of her research and definitely landed some blows.

"For the record," Thompson said, "I would like to emphasize that the ESRB has never provided any scientific basis for its allegations about flaws in our methods and we were very surprised to see the ESRB make such statements. We ask the ESRB to provide evidence of this assertion and we believe their assertion of 'flaws' in our methods is a very serious scientific allegation."

"The ESRB in my opinion should focus much more on insuring the quality of its information and less on promoting its rating system... and finally one of the most important things the ESRB needs to do is distinguish real, peer-reviewed scientific studies from non-publicly available market research that it commissions."

Witness Dr. Warren Buckleitner expressed support for the ESRB system, saying, "As researchers we need to raise the level of dialogue by citing references and trying the games ourselves first-hand, observing real kids, and grounding our opinions in firm data."

During his testimony, Dr. David Walsh of NIMF, among other points, expressed concern about the upcoming Naughty America game and raised alarms about a possible alliance between the video game industry and the porn business. Commenting on the recent Sex in Games Conference, Walsh said, "Last week, for the first time ever, there was a meeting between video game developers and the pornography industry." He also called for a universal rating system for all media. "The present alphabet soup is just confusing," he said.

During the questioning which followed the witnesses' prepared testimony, subcommittee Chairman Stearns grilled ESRB boss Vance over how games get rated, why there are so few Adults Only (AO) ratings, and whether there was an inherent conflict of interest in relying on content submissions by publishers in the rating process. Although Vance held her own, Stearns' sharp questioning of the ESRB president was a clear indication of Congressional mistrust of the industry and its rating process.

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Tags: cliff stearns, congress, david walsh, doug lowenstein, esa, esrb, fred upton, ftc, harvard, john barton, kim thompson, nimf, pat vance, warren buckleitner

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