Utah: Rated R for Ridiculous

Utah is on the verge of using it’s ‘Truth in Advertising’ bill to pass regulated enforcement of video game ratings.  The bill which was in some part drafted by Jack Thompson, the disbarred anti-violent games attorney from Florida, would fine retailers that sold games to underage customers up to $2,000 per incident.

The catch?  This only applies if they advertise that they conduct age verification, essentially encouraging retailers to remove all advertising that they check ID’s or age in some manner.  Retailers would be better off in this case not advertising in any way that they train employees to verify age before selling age restricted games.  This way if a slip up occurs—as it eventually will—the retailer wouldn’t be held accountable.

The legislation takes a giant step back considering that Patricia Vance, President of the not-for-profit ESRB ranking group, stated in an open letter to the Utah Congress that”

…the most recent such study reported in May 2008 found that national retailers refused to sell M-rated games to customers under 17 a remarkable 80% of the time, far surpassing the comparable rates of compliance for movies, DVDs, or music CDs rated for a mature audience…according to a recent audit, Utah video game retailers enforce their store policies regarding the sale of M-rated games an impressive 94% of the time — without any laws or requirements that they do so.  That level of compliance took many years to achieve, and speaks to the strong commitment of video game retailers to do the right thing.

Apparently a 94% success rate isn’t good enough for Utah who will ignore one of the best working models of self-regulation that any entertainment industry has ever seen or successfully implemented, and will instead take the opportunity to enforce government control in a way that will not prove successful and will cause greater problems down the line.

I whole heartedly agree with Matt Peckham of PCWorld when he says that,

Truth in advertising is important. No one wants to buy a “100% cotton” shirt that turns out to be 50% polyester or an LCD TV with a “full parts and labor three year warranty” that’s only honored for one. Retailers have basic authenticity obligations and consumers should have the right to take action and/or pursue remuneration when a retailer engages in deceitful advertising.

But voluntary self-regulation that hinges on an aesthetically amorphous value system resides in a legal gray area. No one’s going to disagree that selling a 50% polyester shirt as “100% cotton” is ethically wrong, deserving of legal consequences. But games ratings aren’t based on scientific analyses of the fiber content of a piece of fabric, and there’s plenty of disagreement over whether it’s the responsibility of stores or parents to enforce them. For some, game and movie ratings are simply advisory, and it’s up to parents to monitor what kids are up to, not some for-profit business, and most certainly not a bunch of at best tenuously culturally clued-in government bureaucrats.

Peckham’s insinuations that this is just the beginning are dead on.  And those like Jack Thompson that want to see violent or mature content banned from the face of the earth know just that, and are counting on it.  You see, when this model fails, politicians won’t return to the stage and admit they were wrong and redact the policy.  They will instead seek to legislate the issue even further and with a firmer grip.  This is simply the first flake in a snowball rolling down hill.