FTC: Kids Finding It Harder to Buy M-rated Video Games

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Teenagers in the U.S. are having a more difficult time buying M-rated mature video games in stores than in past years, according to the results of an undercover operation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC, using 13-to-16-year-old undercover shoppers, found that only 20 percent of them were able to purchase M-rated video games from eight retailers. That's down from 42 percent in 2006 and 85 percent in 2000, when the FTC first began doing the surveys focused on mature games, music and movies.

The FTC praised most video-game retailers, saying they have worked to cut down sales of mature games to minors under age 17. "Some retailers have really paid attention to our [survey] results and to some criticism," said Mary Engle, the FTC's associate director for advertising practices.

In recent years, many U.S. lawmakers have blasted retailers for selling violent or sexually themed video games to minors. In 2005, Hillary Clinton, a Democratic senator from New York and current U.S. presidential candidate, introduced the Family Entertainment Protection Act, which would have created federal enforcement of the voluntary Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings system. The bill would have included fines or community service sentences for retailers who sell mature or adult-only rated video games to minors.

That legislation, widely criticized by gamers, was not approved by the U.S. Senate.

Three bills introduced in Congress in 2007 focus on video games, with two that would prohibit video-game makers from hiding content from the ESRB as a way to avoid a restrictive rating. On Wednesday, U.S. Representatives Jim Matheson, a Utah Democrat, and Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican, introduced a bill that would require all retailers to check identification from any child trying to buy or rent mature or adults-only rated games.

"Too many children are spending too much time playing inappropriate video games that most parents would find shocking and objectionable," Matheson said in a statement. "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."

Some of the same stores restricting access to video games allowed more teens to buy R-rated or unrated DVDs or CDs with parent advisory labels (PALs), the FTC said. In movie theaters, an R rating means children under age 17 aren't supposed to be admitted without a parent. Unrated movies can contain content that would be rated NC-17, the movie industry's most adult rating.

The FTC's operation found that more than 50 percent of the undercover shoppers were able to buy unrated movies and PAL-rated CDs, and 47 percent were able to buy R-rated movies. In each of those cases, the percentages have gone down since 2006.

The FTC's operation also targeted movie theaters -- 35 percent of the time, the undercover shoppers were able to buy R-rated movie tickets without an adult present.

Some stores don't appear to have a "consistent policy" about allowing teens to buy mature-themed products, Engle said. "The issue of unrated DVDs is particularly troublesome," she said.

Just 6 percent of teen shoppers at GameStop or EB Games stores were able to buy M-rated video games, the FTC said. Company officials in early 2007 said they'd fire employees who sold mature-themed games to kids.

Wal-Mart sold M-rated games to just 18 percent of the secret shoppers, and Best Buy sold them to 20 percent. But 83 percent of the teen shoppers were able to purchase unrated DVDs at Best Buy. Seventy-seven percent of the kids were able to purchase unrated DVDs at Target, while only 29 percent were able to buy M-rated video games.

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