After the record-breaking $500 million first-week sales of "Grand Theft Auto IV," the big business of video games is under the microscope again this week. But this time, it's not outraged parents doing the scrutinizing. It's lawmakers.
Two Congress members introduced a bill this week pushing for government regulation of the burgeoning gaming industry, just as the Federal Trade Commission released a report that found some stores are selling violent video games to kids despite a drive to have stores observe the industry's rating system.
The Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act, introduced to the House floor this week by Reps. Lee Terry, R-Neb., and Jim Matheson, D-Utah, would force stores to check the identification of anyone purchasing games rated M and AO.
M is for mature -- only people 17 or older can buy it -- and AO is for adults only. Stores that violate the rule would be fined $5,000, ostensibly by the FTC.
Established by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the current rating system while widely adhered to by major retailers, is voluntary. Still, an AO rating is considered a kiss of death by game manufacturers because most major retailers refuse to carry AO-rated games.
"Too many children are spending too much time playing inappropriate video games that most parents would find shocking and objectionable," Matheson said. "As a parent, I know that I'm the first line of defense against my kids playing mature-rated video games. But parents can't be everywhere monitoring everything and some reasonable, common sense rules ought to be in place to back parents up."
At the same time, the FTC released a "secret shopper" report this week that showed vast improvements in retailers policing according to the ratings system. The FTC sent unaccompanied teenage shoppers ages 13 to 16 into stores to see what they could purchase.
Overall, only 20 percent of minors were able to purchase M-rated games, an improvement in the 42 percent that were able to purchase games during the commission's last secret shopper experiment in 2006.
Game Stop led the pack, rejecting 94 percent of underage shoppers. Wal-Mart and Best Buy rejected about 80 percent of shoppers. Circuit City did not fare as well, rejecting only 62 percent of shoppers.
Of course, critics and supporters of the video game industry have used the report to bolster their arguments in different ways.
According to the industry, the report shows that not only do they not need government regulation introduced by the Matheson-Terry bill, but they're doing a good job regulating themselves.
"Empowering parents, not enacting unconstitutional legislation, is the best way to control the games children play," said Michael Gallagher, president of the Entertainment Software Association, in a statement. The association represents video game publishers and developers.
The Entertainment Consumers Association, a group that represents gamers, says the legislation is unconstitutional.
"We're really happy that the FTC report came out when it did," said Jennifer Mercurio, the association's director of government affairs. "At the same time, we're disturbed by the latest piece of legislation that's being promulgated by a couple of members in Congress."
Because the video game ratings system is a voluntary and private system, just like the ratings used in movies, Mercurio says that it can't be regulated.
"The government has never stepped in and done this," she said.
Similar laws in nine states have been passed, then later struck down by federal courts as unconstitutional, according to Mercurio.
"As new entertainment content has been created and established, the First Amendment protects that content. That includes violence in movies, violence in books," Mercurio said. "Why has it been hitting video games harder? It's become video games are the newest content. … Video games are protected, exactly like music, movies and books."
She added, "We feel that the industry is doing a darn good job."
But Gavin McKiernan, the national grass-roots director of the Parents Television Council, says that despite the improvements made by retailers, the FTC report shows there's room for improvement that might be bolstered by the proposed law.
"I think they reenforce one another. The industry is making improvement and moving in the right direction," McKiernan said. "They should welcome the challenge. … Perhaps [the industry] still needs a little more incentive or they need to be watched a little more closely."
Video games have long left the darkened bedrooms of pasty, socially awkward 15-year-old boys. Nintendo proved this with the introduction of its wildly popular Wii gaming system. The company made a conscious effort to market the console to nontraditional gamers, particularly women and senior citizens. Games like "Guitar Hero" have made their way into the national lexicon.
Games are even beating out movies at the box office. Last week "Grand Theft Auto IV" pulled in a whopping $500 million in its first week of sales, while the summer blockbuster "Iron Man" made $200 million.