- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Lawmakers yesterday criticized the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for waiting nearly a year to take limited action against the makers of a violent and sexually explicit video game.

The FTC last week announced that it had reached an agreement with the companies behind “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” that requires them to disclose content relevant to the rating on product packaging and in advertisements. The companies cannot misrepresent the rating or content descriptions, and they face fines of up to $11,000 per violation if they violate the order when it becomes final after a 30-day comment period.

Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., published the game, which was developed by Rockstar Games Inc. It was the nation’s top seller in 2004, but the House passed a resolution in July asking the FTC to conduct an inquiry after learning that sexually explicit content on the game disc could be unlocked by players with an online download.

The game makers should have been fined millions of dollars for bringing “trash” into consumers’ homes, said Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican. The FTC action did not even amount to “a slap on the wrist,” he said.

“Nothing for the most popular game sold in America,” Mr. Upton said yesterday during a House subcommittee hearing on “Violent and Explicit Video Games: Informing Parents and Protecting Children.”

Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said the companies incurred about $25 million in costs to recall and relabel the games, but said the FTC did what it could.

“The fact is, simply, the commission does not have the statutory authority to impose civil fines for Rockstar’s conduct,” Ms. Parnes said.

The game originally was rated “M,” for Mature, for its depiction of blood, violence and sexual themes and should only be sold to consumers age 17 and older. The Entertainment Software Rating Board changed the rating to “AO,” for Adults Only, a designation for games that most major retailers nationwide refuse to carry, after the companies admitted the extra sex scenes could be unlocked.

The retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which sells nearly 25 percent of all games in the United States, immediately removed the game from their stores.

An FTC study released in March found 42 percent of its undercover underage shoppers were able to buy an M-rated game last year, down from 69 percent in 2003.

Rep. Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce’s commerce, trade and consumer protection subcommittee, showed edited clips of “Grand Theft Auto” depicting criminals shooting police officers, making drug deals, soliciting prostitutes and flying an airplane into a building.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat and ranking member of the subcommittee, criticized Wal-Mart for the ease with which consumers under age 17 can buy explicit games on its Web site simply by checking a box certifying they are the proper age.

“That age verification is a joke,” in an era when 13-year-olds can be issued credit cards and other children have access to their parents’ cards, she said.

Gary Severson, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president of merchandising, said in his testimony that the company refuses to sell games that carry the “AO” rating and requires age verification when anyone buys an “M”-rated game in person.

Mr. Stearns questioned the effectiveness of the industry-driven Entertainment Software Rating Board in monitoring the more than $10 billion U.S. computer and video game software industry, pointing out that fewer than 100 of the 12,000 games reviewed have been given the “AO” rating.

Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah Democrat, and other lawmakers have introduced bills that would make it illegal to sell or rent “AO” and “M” games to underage consumers.

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