In my recent paper on "Fact and Fiction in the Debate over Video Games," I pointed out that one of the reasons that many lawmakers were stepping-up efforts to regulate video games was because of the supposed failure of the industry's voluntary ratings system. In particular, many critics claim that the ratings system is not enforced effectively at the point-of-sale.
As a result, Senators Hillary Clinton, Joseph Lieberman and Even Bayh argue that federal legislation like their proposed "Family Entertainment Protection Act" is needed to "put teeth in the enforcement of video game ratings" because "young people are able to purchase these games with relative ease."
Good news: A new survey out by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today shows that the enforcement system is working better than ever before and that it's not so easy for kids to buy games on their own.
By way of background, since 2000, the FTC has conducted four "mystery shopper" surveys in which 13-to 16-year-olds are recruited to make an attempt to purchase "M"-rated ("Mature") video games without a parent being present. The number of teenagers who were able to purchase M-rated games in 2000 was quite high at 85%. The second survey in 2001 saw a small drop to 78% and then the number fell again in 2003 to 69%. Admittedly, that number was still fairly high and its what has led to calls by policymakers for government intervention. Bills like FEPA would impose fines on retailers if they sell such games to minors.
Today, however, the FTC released the results of its latest mystery shopper survey and found that the percentage of teens that were able to buy an M-rated game has plummeted. The 2005 survey revealed that only 42% of 13-to 16-year-olds were able to purchase M-rated games. That's a significant improvement in just two years and I believe it shows, as I suggested in my recent paper, that the industry private ratings system is just beginning to reach a critical mass in terms of public / retailer awareness. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), the industry's voluntary ratings / labeling body, continues to work with retailers to improve the effectiveness of the system with the hope of making its ratings system as commonplace as the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) ratings.
Importantly, however, even the MPAA's widely recognized ratings system still isn't perfectly enforced by cinemas even though it has existed for more than three decades. The FTC's 2003 mystery shopper survey for movie-goers found that 36 percent of teens where able to purchase tickets for R-rated movies without a parent present.
It's also worth noting that too much should not be read into these FTC "mystery shopper" surveys for another reason: How often do 13-16 year olds really go into stores and buy games on their own? And even if kids are going in to stores and buying games on their own, where are they getting the money to do so? The retail price of a new video game ranges between $40-$50. Some of the most popular new titles can cost almost $60. Thus, given the significant cost of the games, it is likely that an adult will be present when most games are purchased. Market surveys confirm that this is the case. According to Hart Research surveys, the average age of a video game purchaser is 37 and 92 percent of the time parents are present when games are purchased or rented.
Critics might argue that some kids can get access to their parents' credit cards or somehow get money from them to buy games on their own from an online vendor, for example. But this is clearly a matter of personal responsibility that parents must deal with in other many contexts as well. In a free society, government should not use a potential lack of parental responsibility as an excuse for regulatory intervention. That is especially the case when the intervention would affect freedom of speech or artistic expression.