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A somewhat grainy black and white photo of an arcade, with games labeled "blepop, vidbo dames, and wonder boy" in the foreground, and a Simpsons game in the background.
Video Games. Photo by Flickr user Bambi. May 13, 2014. Used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

To Play or Not to Play: Video Game Ratings and the Law

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The following is a guest post by Sabrina Holecko, a former intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a graduate of the library and information science program at San Jose State University.

In honor of the Library of Congress Friends’ Choice Civics Video Game Challenge, we are bringing you a post about how video games interact with the law.

A screen capture of the page for the Library's video game contest.
Library of Congress Friends’ Choice Civics Video Game Challenge.

As technology advances, video games have moved from pixelated table tennis to characters making ethical choices in role-playing games (RPGs). Virtual reality has added another component to the immersive video game experience. These technological advancements have led to detailed graphics in all sorts of games, including games with violent story lines.  When it comes to video game ratings, attempts have been made to balance free speech with parental concerns about exposing their children to certain imagery. Controversies have arisen over the years surrounding the Grand Theft Auto and Mortal Kombat series, for example, which has led to questions about who makes video game ratings. One source is the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).

The Entertainment Software Rating Board

Established in 1994, this non-profit organization states that its “primary responsibility is to help consumers – especially parents – make informed choices about the games their families play.” One component of its work is creating the lettered rating labels you may have seen on game cases, but what those letters mean might be less clear.

ESRB has three different components included in the rating box found on the back corner of physical game cases. The first component is the rating category, which ranges from everyone (E) to adults only (AO). The second part of the rating highlights content parents may be interested in, such as language and sexual themes. Lastly, the ESRB provides information about interactive elements, such as in-app purchases. The video game industry has adopted this rating system voluntarily, but attempts have been made previously to regulate this process.

United States Legislation on Video Games

The issue of violence and video games is not new. Nearly 30 years ago, the Senate introduced the Video Game Rating Act of 1994, which called for establishing an agency called the Interactive Entertainment Rating Commission. According to the bill’s text, this commission was intended to “coordinate with the video game industry in the development of a voluntary system for providing information concerning the contents of video games to purchasers and users,” and create regulations related to video game ratings. No further action was taken on this measure after it was referred to a committee.

In the House, several bills have been introduced on this topic, but few have made significant strides in the legislative process. The Children Protection from Video Game Violence and Sexual Content Act of 2007 called for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to research the ESRB’s system and report to Congress on whether it exposed children to excessive sexual and violent content. It also required the Comptroller General to research the impact that video games may have on children’s mental stability and growth.  A few years later, in 2013, the Video Games Rating Enforcement Act was introduced. Among other stipulations, its text prohibited minors from renting, selling, or buying a video game with an AO label, with monetary penalties for people or businesses who violated these provisions. Most recently, legislation was introduced in the House “to address the effects of new technologies on children’s mental health,” although that bill did not identify video games directly.

Video Game Case Law

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on one aspect of video game ratings and sales in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. This case arose in 2005, when video game and software companies fought a California law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors. The video game producers prevailed, and the Court found that the California law was prohibited under the First Amendment. Several other states across America, such as Minnesota and Connecticut, have tried to pass similar legislation, but these measures have been struck down by federal courts. As video game improvements lead to realistic immersive experiences, more cases surrounding age restrictions in these formats could arise.

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