Parental advocate group the Parents Television Council this week criticized retailers' "abysmal" performance in enforcing Entertainment Software Rating Board ratings.
The group issued a "PTC Action Alert" this week covering the results of a "secret shopper" study that sent 109 "activists" aged 12 to 16 on 109 visits to local stores in 14 markets across 11 U.S. states.
In 21 of those visits, or 19 percent, the retailer was willing to sell an M-rated game, meant for ages 17 and up, to the underage customers. That's an improvement over the PTC's 2008 secret shopper survey, which found roughly 35 percent of retailers not enforcing the ESRB's ratings.
In a 2009 Federal Trade Commission study, regulators found a similar 20 percent rate of retail non-compliance with the ESRB's ratings, but noted the game business still "outpaces" other entertainment industries in self-regulation of mature-themed content.
"Compliance with ESRB guidelines -- even by the ESRB's own retail partners -- has hardly improved in two years," the PTC said. "With such an abysmal performance rate by the video game retailers, it is no wonder that statehouses around the country have passed legislation on this issue."
[UPDATE: In a statement, ESRB Director of Communications Eliot Mizrachi criticized the PTC's study while praising the industry's retail efforts to stop improper sales of adult-rated games.
“Altogether, retailers’ rate of restriction for Mature-rated games is the highest of any entertainment product tested by the Federal Trade Commission, including DVDs, CDs and admittance to R-rated films in theaters," he said. “Putting aside their questionable methodology – which precludes their studies from being compared to those commissioned by the FTC - the Parent Television Council’s mystery shopper results actually reveal significant improvement despite their efforts to disguise that fact."
"Frankly, the latest PTC member sting operation actually verifies the effectiveness of the ESRB rating system and the ever-increasing support it receives from retailers,” he continued.]
The results of the secret shopper sting come less than a week before the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Schwarzenegger vs. EMA, which will decide the fate of a California law seeking to place government-mandated restrictions on the sale of video games to minors.
Enforcement of the bill was immediately halted after it was signed into law by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005. The law was then blocked by a U.S. District Court Judge in 2007, deemed unconstitutional by the California 9th Circuit Court in 2009 and is now up for U.S. Supreme Court review.
Opponents of the bill argue that similar laws have been struck down in the past on free speech grounds, while supporters of the measure say violent games harm the psychological well-being of children, and therefore must be regulated by the government.
"The industry’s PR spin about how ratings empower parents is specious if unaccompanied minors are able to purchase adult-rated games," said PTC president Tim Winter in a statement. "Parents deserve to be assured that reasonable age restrictions for adult entertainment products will be enforced at the retail level."
Winter continued, "A California law that would simply put consequences in place for retailers who sell exceedingly violent games to minors has been fought tooth and nail by the gaming industry and will come before the U.S. Supreme Court in a matter of days. We urge the Court to uphold the California law and heed the calls of concerned parents by requiring retailers to check IDs."
A detailed breakdown of the results of the PTC's latest study are shown below: