Utah's "Truth in Advertising" Games Bill is Dangerously Wrong

Inside proposed Utah games legislation "Truth in Advertising" bill H.B. 353 is an atom bomb in hiding. No, I don't mean the bit involving Jack Thompson, the controversial disbarred anti-games-violence activist who reportedly authored the thing. And I'm not talking about the part where hysterical Utah activists like Gayle Ruzicka (of the ultra-conservative Utah Eagle Forum) argue before committee that games like Grand Theft Auto "are the kind of things that are training our children" and "vile stuff."

No, the most recent amended version of H.B. 353 is a sobering bellwether of much worse to come if it passes the Utah state senate, as it now seems likely to. Why? Because instead of ensuring game retailers do as they say, the bill in fact encourages them to do the exact opposite and stop promising

they won't sell Mature-rated games like Fable 2 and Fallout 3 and Resident Evil 5 to underage kids and/or teens.

That's because Utah's H.B. 353 effectively criminalizes retail sales of video games to customers who don't meet a game's ratings strictures.

Perhaps you thought sales to underage buyers were already criminal given the unprecedented levels of retailer sales-ratings compliance? They're not. The system's in fact entirely voluntary...and, to date, an enormous success.

According to an undercover U.S. Federal Trade Commission operation, only 20 percent of 13 to 16 year olds were able to purchase M-rated video games from eight retailers. More importantly, that number was down 42 percent in 2006 and 85 percent since 2000, when the FTC surveys started.

According to a Peter D. Hart Research Associates study, nearly 90% of you (that is, American parents with kids who play games) are aware of the ESRB's ratings and use them.

But activist legislators in Utah apparently don't consider 90% good enough, and they're using Utah's "truth in advertising" law as a launch pad to target stores that promote their adherence to an age-discriminatory sales policy (in essence, compliance with the Entertainment Software Ratings Board's ratings system). Under their proposed bill, If a store says it enforces the ESRB's ratings on a game then fails to do so, it could be liable for up to $2,000 in fines per incident.

The non-cynical view: H.B. 353 is an attempt to pull game ratings under the umbrella of Utah's prevailing "truth in advertising" guidelines.

The cynical view: The bill's promoters are trying to backdoor anti-ESRB legislation by using a potentially over-broad state policy to increase governmental control of private sector activities and declare self-regulatory triumphs null and void.

According to ESRB president Patricia Vance, in an open letter to "Utah's parents and leaders" published last Friday...

...when the Federal Trade Commission first began measuring retailer compliance with video game sales policies nationwide in 2000, a scant 15% of underage customers were turned away. However, 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.

What's more, says Vance...

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