WASHINGTON – Republican lawmakers said on Wednesday that parents need to know more about sexual content and violence in video games and criticized the FTC's handling of a complaint about a top-selling game, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."
The industry's voluntary ratings system and game makers have been under fire since last summer, when Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. (TTWO) pulled the blockbuster title from store shelves following complaints about hidden sex scenes that could be viewed with a downloaded program.
Congress asked the FTC to investigate. Last week, the agency reached a settlement with Take-Two that bars the company from misrepresenting rating or content descriptions.
At a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on violent video games, Michigan Republican Fred Upton complained the settlement terms "aren't even a slap on the wrist."
"I guess I thought the FTC had a few more teeth," Upton added.
Texas Republican Joe Barton, chairman of the entire committee, said the FTC had yet to formally submit a report to Congress on its investigation.
"Given the sensitivity of the issue, it's not acceptable practice by the FTC to respond in such a tardy fashion," Barton said.
Another Republican, Cliff Stearns of Florida, compared violent video games to hate speech and urged the FTC to "get tough" with companies like Take-Two.
"They flout the law and continue to exploit our kids with violence and hate," Stearns said.
But the FTC did not have the authority to impose civil penalties against Take-Two as part of the settlement, Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, told the lawmakers.
A Take-Two spokesman declined to comment.
The popular "Grand Theft Auto" series of games is known for letting players commit crimes as they cruise through bleak urban landscapes. It is the best selling game franchise ever in the United States with more than $1 billion in sales.
Currently, it is up to retailers whether or not to sell M-rated games to minors. M-rated games have content deemed appropriate for people aged 17 and up by the Entertainment Software Rating Board.
Lawmakers said parents must have more information about the content of video games their children play.
Parnes said the FTC supports the video game industry's self-regulation of violent content, but said too many U.S. children are still able to buy M-rated games in stores.
"There is still substantial room for improvement," she said.
An FTC study found 42 percent of its undercover shoppers, children between the ages of 13 and 16, were able to buy an M-rated game last year. That is down from 69 percent in 2003.
The FTC will survey consumers about the game rating system as part of a broad entertainment industry report, Parnes said.
The fast-growing video game industry now generates revenue rivaling Hollywood box office sales.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), which accounts for one-fourth of all video games sold in the United States, said it does not sell M-rated games to children under age 17 unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian.
The company does "everything possible to prevent children from obtaining inappropriate video games" and to inform parents about content, Gary Severson, said Wal-Mart vice president.