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.