TCS Daily

A Model of Self-Regulation

By Jim Prendergast - May 25, 2005 12:00 AM

The attendees at last week's E3 show in Los Angeles are abuzz about some of the recent hardware developments, including the PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360. But as exciting as these platforms are, they rely on the software titles developed for them to drive use and sales. The gaming industry has already done an excellent job of taking steps to ensure that everyone plays age-appropriate games, but some legislators in Illinois, California and other states want to get government into the business of regulating game sales.

Software developers spend a great deal of time and effort to create products that serve the wide range of interests of the gamers who use these and other platforms. Sports, fantasy, war -- there are titles to serve nearly every niche of gaming style. The primary target market for many of these products is males between 16 and 30 years old. Obviously, however, some younger and some older will also buy and use them, and many women do too.

There's no question that some of the computer games out there are not suitable for people of all ages. There are games with violent or otherwise inappropriate content that children should not be playing. That's why it is so encouraging that the hardware developers have begun to implement technology that allows parental controls to be implemented on the Xbox, PlayStation and other similar devices. These systems ensure that mature games cannot be played on children's consoles.

Parental controls rely on a longstanding rating system used effectively by the gaming industry for a long time. In response to the wide range of interests and ages, the Entertainment Software Rating Board was created more than a decade ago to offer parents guidance about the suitability of various games. According to the ESRB, "virtually all games that are sold at retail are rated." That's a tremendous accomplishment for a voluntary system and a clear indication that the industry has taken solid steps to self-police its sales.

But most software game publishers go even further and abide by the standards of the Advertising Review Council which seeks to ensure that gaming advertising content is responsible and that they voluntarily display product ratings in a clear and understandable manner. The software gaming industry's standards are so solid that the Federal Trade Commission held it up as a model for others: "there is much in the game industry's rating disclosure requirements that merits duplication by others."

Despite all of these efforts, however, some legislators and regulators would impose government rules on the sale of video games. Rather than relying on a self-policing system that works, they would introduce bureaucratic red tape that would stifle innovation, reduce consumer choice, and needlessly add additional burden to developers, retailers, and consumers.

Industry groups like the Entertainment Software Association already work with retailers to educate them about the ratings system and to help ensure they do not sell "Mature" or 'M' rated software games to children under 17. That's a responsible effort that's working, according to the government and advocacy groups.

With the rapid growth of technology and the ongoing development of new platforms like the Play Station 3 and Xbox 360, consumers are demanding games that take advantage of all the new capabilities this hardware offers. Gaming consumers want to see cutting edge products that increase the level of realism and responsiveness. And game developers work very hard every day to meet this demand by employing creative programmers and designers who turn out better and better products every year.

Government screening of games and heavy-handed enforcement of retail sales would slow the creative forces that fuel the growth of this industry. Voluntary compliance requires far less paperwork and delay than the bureaucratic approach.

The bottom line is that voluntary enforcement of the current ratings system works well. It creates an environment where innovation flourishes and consumer demand is met. It promotes speedy development and release of new products that benefits the developers, retailers, and consumers alike.

While legislating and regulating computer game content may sound like a populist idea, it's bad public policy and it certainly doesn't replace the need for parents to be involved in their children's lives.

Jim Prendergast is executive director of Americans for Technology Leadership.


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