Video Game Ratings: Is the Fox Guarding the Henhouse?
A 7-year-old boy enters a store. He takes a video game to the counter. The clerk bends over and helps him count his money to complete the purchase. He walks out carrying Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a video game rated M (for mature, 17 and older) that involves stealing cars, killing people and consorting with prostitutes. Players can reclaim money they spend on the prostitute if they kill her after sex.
As part of a sting operation by the National Institute on Media and the Family, the 7-year-old successfully purchased Grand Theft Auto at several retail stores. In a similar Federal Trade Commission sting, 13- to 16-year-old boys successfully bought M-rated games such as Grand Theft Auto 85 percent of the time. Even if they don't purchase the game themselves, a majority of teens - 71 percent of boys and 34 percent of girls - reported in a Gallup Poll Youth Survey that they had played the top-selling game.
To address growing criticism about video games and children, the game industry implemented its own rating system in 1994. The Entertainment Software Review Board (ESRB) ratings attempt to inform parents regarding the age-appropriateness of video game content; however, media experts say the ratings are minimally effective and often inaccurate.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, 16 of the top 20 best-selling games in 2002 were rated E (for everyone) or T (for teen). But two different samples of top-selling E-rated games found that violent play may be included and not labeled with appropriate content descriptors. One content analysis of E-rated games found two-thirds involved intentional violence, half depicted deaths from violence and that players frequently are rewarded for injuring players to advance in the game.
"The rating is not always an accurate indicator of content," says Craig Anderson, head of the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University and a media expert who has testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on the need to regulate video games. "Teen-rated games are extremely violent. Some of the E, everyone, games are basically first-person shooters but with cartoon characters and happy music."
Video games contain many different degrees of violence, from cartoon violence in which non-human characters disappear without blood when "killed" and popular sports games (football and wrestling) to the increasingly realistic, graphic first-person shooter games that show men, women and children die violent deaths.
"People assume if it's a cartoon character and there's no blood and it's good characters shooting at bad characters, that must not have any negative impact. But the research evidence suggests otherwise," Anderson says.
While half of parents say they limit video game playing time and check for ratings to select game purchases, only 7 percent of kids say their parents did not allow them to purchase a game because of its rating.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, says parents should, at the bare minimum, enforce the rating system. "And the truth is," he adds, "your kid deserves better than the industry's minimum standard. A loving, caring parent would go higher than that."
The Entertainment Software Review Board designates video games in the following five ratings categories:
- EC (Early Childhood) Suitable for ages 3 and older. Does not contain any content parents would find inappropriate.
- E (Everyone) Suitable for ages 6 and older. May contain minimal violence, some comic mischief (for example, slapstick comedy) or some crude language.
- T (Teen) Suitable for ages 13 and older. May contain violence, mild or strong language, and/or suggestive themes.
- M (Mature) Suitable for ages 17 and older. May contain more intense violence or language than the "Teen" category, and may include mature sexual themes.
- A (Adults Only) Suitable only for adults. May contain graphic sex and/or violence. Not intended to be sold or rented to anyone under the age of 18.
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Anne Chappell Belden is a freelance writer, journalism instructor and mother of two children. She has a master's degree in media studies.