Every time there's a complaint about children being exposed to the mature content of some of today's video games, be it graphic violence, overt sexuality, or other adult themes, someone inevitably points out that those games should be sold only to adults. The ESRB rating system has existed for years, and retailers are supposed to honor it—but do they? A study published by the Federal Trade Commission suggests they do.
The FTC's secret shopper program sent unaccompanied children aged 13-16 to buy M-rated games reserved for audiences 17 and older. Only 13% were able to buy the games, which is less than the 24% who were able to purchase tickets to R-rated movies. 30% of the underaged shoppers were able to obtain R-rated DVDs, while a whopping 47% bought CDs with Parental Advisory stickers. In all fairness, the retailers were probably so shocked to see children of that age actually buying CDs that they didn't bother to check for warning labels.
Although the percentage of FTC moles who successfully bought M-rated games is unchanged from 2010, which appears to be the last time the study was conducted, that figure has fallen precipitously since 2000. Back then, when the first of these studies was conducted, over 80% of children were able to buy M-rated titles.
As Ars Technica points out, compliance with ESRB ratings is largely self-regulating; apparently, there are no laws on the books that outright ban the sale of M-rated games to minors. Kudos to retailers for doing the right thing... or at least succumbing to subtler pressure. Of course, whether brick-and-mortar stores sell mature games to children seems likely to become less of an issue as distribution moves online, where verifying someone's age becomes more difficult.