The prostitute seemed only too grateful to get into my car. It had been raining all day long, and with the sun down, it wasn't going to get any warmer. We parked, got on with our business -- the car bouncing in accompaniment -- and then away she went, leaving me feeling a whole lot better. Not to mention a little poorer. So, needing the money, I caught up with her, beat her, took my money back and drove off. Who says that there are no free rides in life?
Only this isn't life. It's not my car, it's not even an unnamed prostitute left bleeding. It's all part of the Playstation2 game Grand Theft Auto III, which, in a few months at the end of 2001, became the best-selling video game of the year. And it's easy to see why: the game is impressively realistic, technically masterful and challenging. And everything it offers -- the mind-blowing realism and the realistic mind-blowing -- can be picked up at electronics, department and superstores around the country. In fact, according to the Federal Trade Commission, at least 66 percent of kids between the ages of 13 and 16 can buy the game with no problem. This statistic comes from the Commission's most recent report to Congress on entertainment marketing and sales practices to children, issued at the end of last year.
The report was a follow-up to the previous year's investigation, which revealed a remarkable amount of advertising targeted at children by the entertainment industry. Products that had been rated as highly inappropriate for kids were being sold directly to them. When the news broke late in 2000, media, legislative and public attention focused intensely on the issue for several weeks. After Congress began calling executives from the movie, music and video game industries to answer for the government's findings, it became clear that changes were going to be made in the way that entertainment was marketed. And while many changes did take place in the industry, some problems remained unchanged in the 2001 report, which arrived with almost no attention due to the events of September 11.
But now the spotlight may be swinging back towards entertainment and the way mature subject matter is presented. Despite the softening economy and the financial effects of the terrorists' attacks, last year's domestic motion picture box office closed with record numbers, topping the $8 billion mark for the first time ever. But an even bigger surprise was the video and computer games industry, which recently reported more than $9 billion in retail sales last year. With money like that involved, neither the entertainment industries nor the government will likely overlook the issues that are coming to light and causing concern for parents and lawmakers.
Because of the guarantee of freedom of speech, there is very little discussion of entertainment censorship outside of activist groups. The line separating art and exploitation is notoriously tricky to define in broad terms: what serves as an insult for one audience, often reveals itself as an insight for another.
For this reason, most attention so far has focused on how the various forms of mature-audience entertainment are marketed to younger consumers. Fortunately, standards are already in place regarding what subject matter is appropriate for what audience. They include the widely understood film ratings -- "R," "PG-13," "PG" and "G" -- as well as the video game industry's rating system and increasingly familiar warning about explicit language that appears on music recordings.
Where the Federal Trade Commission says that serious problems lie, however, is at the retail and marketing levels, where consumers first come into contact with the products. The FTC's most recent report shows that, for the most part, movie studios and video game publishers are targeting younger audiences less frequently than in the past with advertising for mature movies and games. This means that advertisements for R-rated films and M-rated games do not air as frequently during television shows that report a large percentage of their audience as children, or in publications aimed at younger readers. Also praised in the recent report was the lack of intent to target mature films at younger audiences.
The recording industry was briefly criticized by its own labeling organization -- the Recording Industry Association of America -- for advertising albums that had received explicit lyrics warnings in magazines aimed at teenagers and children. But record companies argued that since their labeling policy did not specifically designate an age for which labeled music may be inappropriate, advertising that targeted all ages was consistent with the program's philosophy.
Also mentioned in the report as a "good job" was the effort put forth by the various industries to educate consumers about what the ratings mean. Several of the larger companies in the video games industry launched an advertising campaign designed to educate parents about the ratings system, and film companies and theater chains were praised for providing clearer disclosure about the nature of "R" and "PG-13" films.
The bad news for the entertainment industry comes when the report looks at how music, movies and games are actually sold in stores. Using an undercover "mystery shopper" survey, the FTC found that unaccompanied children between the ages of 13 and 16 were able to purchase tickets to R-rated films 48 percent of the time, M-rated games 78 percent of the time and recordings labeled with explicit content 90 percent of the time.
These statistics are almost identical to those revealed in 2000's initial report for the sales of movie tickets and recordings, and indicate only a 7 percent improvement in the sales of video games. Online shopping sites were praised for disclosing ratings information but criticized for making all materials available to any consumer using a credit card.
And this is where the government may actually be able to affect the dollars that are brought in by these industries. A large percentage of the revenue generated by entertainment comes from purchases made by children and teenagers. The current systems of ratings-enforcement for all of the industries are voluntary -- meaning that theaters, electronics and music stores only have to check ages and limit sales if they choose to. Several larger retail chains, including Toys 'R' Us, Kmart, Wal-Mart, Target and CompUSA, have adopted programs that restrict children's access to M-rated games and enforce age-appropriate sales. But as the FTC's report indicates, there are still a large number of M-rated games that are being sold to younger consumers. Movie theaters were lightly praised for being the strictest industry in terms of ratings enforcement, and music stores were defended for their high number of sales to children by the lack of age-restrictions in music's labeling system.
In response to these findings, there are currently bills before the state legislatures in Georgia and here in Washington, which, if turned into law, would make the sale of mature video games to minors illegal. At the federal level, lawmakers have been more restrained in their reactions. "Ultimately, the responsibility for protecting children from video violence falls to parents," Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) explains. "But in this 500-channel, fully-digital universe, they need some help."
But rather than initiate legislation on the matter, Lieberman and his colleague Senator Herbert Kohl (D.-Wisc.) sent letters to the CEOs of 34 major video game retailers and the industry's leading trade association (the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association) last December that urged them to implement a system of ratings enforcement.
"It's time for retailers to make this a priority -- from the boardroom to the stockroom," Lieberman says. "That is surely something that will register with families across the country."
More information about the ratings system used by the motion picture industry can be found at www.mpaa.org. For information explaining the video game rating system, visit www.idsa.org. The recording industry's parental advisory program is detailed at www.riaa.org.