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Rated P for Politics: Proposed bill would make ESRB ratings legally binding

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It seems that on a daily basis some politician somewhere, decides that he or she has the solution to whatever deleterious effects violence in video games might have on the human psyche. Yesterday it was President Barack Obama calling for expanded research into those effects, while today a Congressman believes the answer lies with the Electronic Software Ratings Board.

Colloquially known as the ESRB, the Board mainly serves as the arbiter of which games should be rated M and which games have little enough blood and gore to qualify for a T rating. At the moment there’s little difference between these two ratings, at least as far as sales are concerned, so publishers are just as keen to debut a new title that’s been rated M for Mature as they are a game with a T for Teen rating. This stands in stark contrast to Hollywood studios which avoid the R rating whenever possible. Traditional wisdom dictates that since more people are able to walk into a PG-13 movie than an R movie, the former rating is the one to aim for if you hope to maximize your profits. The gaming industry has never had such problems – M rated games perennially top sales charts – but if Representative Jim Matheson has his way, that all might change very soon.

Matheson proposed a bill on January 15 that, if ratified into law, would make the ESRB’s ratings system legally binding. The stated goal of the bill seems innocuous: “To require ratings label [sic] on video games and to prohibit the sales and rentals of adult-rated video games to minors.” If that sounds familiar, it should. Matheson’s concept seems to be a simple extension on current video game sales rules, with one important exception: Under Matheson’s potential law, those caught selling or distributing “adult-rated” video games to those under the age of 18 could face civil penalties of up to $5,000 in fines per violation. As it stands now, most games retailers refuse to sell M-rated games to kids, though if they do there’s no real official recourse for such things. Matheson hopes to change that.

It should be noted that Matheson’s proposed bill isn’t as outlandish as it may seem to American gamers. Both Europe and Australia provide legal penalties for selling mature games to minors. It may, however, find itself rubbing up against the recent Supreme Court ruling that overturned California’s efforts to classify violent video games in the same light as pornography. 

We’re opposed to censorship at any level, but Matheson’s bill is far less insidious than it seems on first inspection. We’re impressed to see a politician demonstrate knowledge of the difference between M and AO-rated games, and as a whole the changes Matheson has proposed would necessitate very little effort from existing games retailers. In the end, it seems the only people truly inconvenienced by this potential law would be children who will no longer be able to walk into the nearest Gamestop, slyly wink at the cashier (who happens to attend the same high school), and walk out with the latest Call of Duty title.