Regulate Thyself

The FTC doesn't step in


In the last seven years, the Federal Trade Commission has periodically performed the essential government function of sending minors into video game stores, having them ask for games rated "Mature," and recording the results. In April the data from that survey, among others, were cataloged in "Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children," the agency's sixth and latest such report. Its findings suggest that the movie, music, and video game industries are increasingly willing to police themselves.

In 2000, 85 percent of underaged "mystery shoppers" returned from the counter with an M-rated game. By 2006 the number had fallen to 42 percent. Mystery shopper sales of R-rated movie tickets, R-rated films on DVD, and CDs with explicit lyrics were all down as well, though by smaller margins.

The researchers also tried to determine whether the industries were marketing adult content to minors. In a review of internal documents from representatives of each of the three industries, they found "little or no evidence" that advertisers for R-rated films, explicit music, or M-rated games were actively seeking young audiences. While the commission complained that advertising aimed at adults was still reaching too many kids, it acknowledged that advertisers generally complied with self-imposed industry restrictions.

More surprising than the industries' restraint, perhaps, is the regulators' acknowledgement of their own constitutional limits. "Given important First Amendment considerations," the authors explain, "the Commission supports private sector initiatives by industry and individual companies." Legislative attempts to restrict access to video games have been rebuffed by two circuit and six district courts—a clear enough message, it seems, to keep the commission content with sending kids, rather than regulators, into game stores.