House bill calls for probe of controversial video game

Two weeks after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) called for enhanced government oversight of video games, House Republicans passed a bill aimed at scrutinizing the $11 billion industry.

The 355-21 vote on Rep. Fred Upton’s (R-Mich.) bill, which calls for a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation on a controversial video game called Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, suggests that both political parties are jockeying for position on the issue.

On July 22, Upton became the first congressional Republican to introduce legislation on video games. The measure passed Monday.

After Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, Republicans said there is a need to reduce sex and violence on television. But until recently Democrats have taken the lead on cleaning up explicit video games.

Clinton was the first senator to introduce a bill calling for fines on retailers who sell games rated M, for mature, to minors. In a letter, Clinton also urged the FTC to investigate the hidden pornographic section in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which is the most popular M rated game.

A bill that would make Illinois the only state to make the sale of M-rated games to minors illegal is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in the near future. The governor has been one of the leading Democrats to take on the video-game industry.

Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), who backed the Upton bill, has introduced legislation that would seek improvements in the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), which calls itself an independent, nonprofit organization that applies and enforces ratings on video games.

“Everyone wants to get onboard now because almost no one will disagree” with the idea that explicit games should not be sold to minors, said Mathew Baum, assistant professor of political science at the University of California Los Angeles. Since the issue is becoming more and more popular, Republicans are eager to get involved, he said.

The $11 billion video-game industry has been growing steadily over the last few years.

Marie Sylla, director of government relations at the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association, which lobbies on behalf of the retailers, said some of the proposed bills pose a threat to the industry.

Before he introduced his bill, Upton sent a letter to the FTC seeking an inquiry into whether the publisher of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had deceived the ESRB. Seventy-nine lawmakers signed the letter, including Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) and the panel’s ranking member, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).

Richard Davis, a political science professor at Brigham Young University said the GOP move is no surprise because “it is traditionally the case that Democrats come up with an initiative, Republicans pick it up, pass the lesser form of it and still get the credit. This is a classic example.”

Davis labeled Clinton’s move on video games as a move to the center of the political spectrum.

The FTC said it received Upton’s letter and will take the situation seriously. However, “details are part of a non-public investigation,” a commission spokeswoman said. Clinton’s letter is still being reviewed, according to the spokeswoman.

A 2003 FTC study found that more than half of all minors between 13 and 16 years old were able to purchase M-rated video games.