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Miscellaneous Travis Hite on 04 Dec 2007 07:32 pm

Annual Video Game Report Card says industry sliding in protecting children.


Every year the National Institute of Media and Family (NIMF) produces the “Annual Video Game Report Card”. This report is often cited each year by political candidates in the issue of violence in video games and how we are protecting our children. The 27-page document was released today at an event attended by Senators Joseph Lieberman and Amy Klobuchar. To cut to the chase, the overall rating given was a “C”. It seems odd that they would get a “C”, given that last year’s report seemed to be pretty positive (though no overall grade was given last year). Granted, this has been a year of controversy. Whereas last year’s ESRB swift reaction to the Hot Cofee mod in GTA was applauded by the industry, the Manhunt 2 controversy clearly set a different tone for this year’s reaction. David Walsh, who penned the report, firmly states

…While the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has continued to educate the public about its video game rating system, several shocking incidents have inadvertently revealed dangerous loopholes in the ratings process. Simply put, some of the hard-won progress seen in previous years has been lost, and now, too many children are spending too much time playing inappropriate video games that can harm their health and development.

The overall grades, as follows, tell a certain story about the current outlook of the market.

Parental Involvement: C
Ratings Education: B-
Retailers’ Policies: C-
National Retailers: D
Game Specialty Stores: B
Game Rental Shops: F
Video Game Industry: C
ESRB Ratings: C+

The especially poor rating given to rental shops is due to the results of the NIMF sending out kids across the country to see if they can get access to M-rated games. While specialty shops enforced the rules 80% of the time, rental shops complied merely 17% of the time. The big blow though comes to the ESRB. Recently criticized by some of the most outspoken senators on Capital Hill regarding this issue, this only serves as further damage to the ESRB. The president of the ESRB, Patricia Vance, was quick to respond to the document. She cites a report by the Federal Trade Comission (FTC) in her response:

The FTC’s report… called the ESRB rating system “a useful and informative tool that parents increasingly use to help them make informed decisions about games for their children.” Its nationwide survey of over 1,300 parents showed that nearly nine in ten parents with children that play video games are satisfied with the ESRB rating system, three in four use it regularly, 94% find the ratings easy to understand, and 59% never let their children play Mature-rated games.

The report offers a list of ways to rectify their reportedly gloomy situation, but they come across as otherwise dull responses.

  • A universal ratings system is needed now, more than ever, to increase ratings knowledge and reduce confusion. A majority of parents favor one rating system for all media.
    • The ESRB should issue its rating based on the game’s entire content, blurred or
    unblurred, locked or unlocked. Game makers should only disclose when such
    content exists in the code, but should provide footage of the blocked or blurred code
    along with the footage they provide of easily accessible code.
    • Retailers must return to the level of compliance of which they have proven in the
    past they are capable.
    • Retailers need to educate their employees, especially the younger ones, concerning
    the importance of enforcing the ratings.
    • Parents need to become better educated about the ratings and then make use of
    them. Parents also need to learn about and use the parental controls offered by the
    new console systems.
    • Libraries, schools, churches and other pubic institutions should follow the game’s
    rating and only allow games appropriate for the age of the youth. By promoting M-rated
    games, they are undercutting the ESRB’s rating system and undermining
    parental credibility and authority.

The last bullet is a definite response to the Halo-in-church controversy earlier this year, where a church used Halo as a promotional tool to attract children to the church. Most of these recommendations do not seem as much of a problem from the industry, but a problem from those regulating what a child can witness. The second bullet point hearkens to a bill currently being put through Congress which many withing the business are worried about. Shankar Gupta, formerly of MediaPost, writes

The bill fails, industry-watchers have noted, because it doesn’t understand how video game content differs from a TV show or a movie. In many games, there’s no way to play through a game’s full content. In some, users create their own content, which can be significantly more adult than what exists in the game. In others, when you play online with other gamers, the experience of the game changes significantly. Usually, there’s more swearing involved. Requiring the ESRB to play every game all the way through and punishing it for failing to do so means one of two things: It is either ignorance, or a calculated attempt to destroy the organization.

Overall, the findings of the report have the sting of political importance, referencing several scandals in the industry that fall back on bills currently being sponsored by the likes of Lieberman. Giving more importance to these scandals, and not taking the positive strides noted by the report itself as being important, are fishy. However, the first recommendation bears a lot of merit. Making a simpler across-the-board rating system that parents can easily understand for all forms of medium would go a long way to making the decision of the parent easier. If this report highlights anything, it is that the parent or adult guardian ultimately is the biggest weak point in keeping children safe from mature imagery and themes. Though the ESRB has taken many steps towards keeping parents informed, it is us as adults that need to decide what is right for them.

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