Ratings designed to keep violent video games out of the hands of children aren't working -- at the cash register or in American homes, according to a report from the National Institute on Media and Family.
In the rating system that is governed by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), games rated M for Mature are intended for players 17 and older. Despite that, almost half of the underage secret shoppers the Institute sent to buy M-rated games were able to do so, according to the report. Additionally, only 59 percent of retailers educated their customers on the ratings, down from 76 percent in the group's annual violent video game report card.
"This year's report card shows some backsliding. Maybe some complacency has set in," said David Walsh, the founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, at a press conference Tuesday morning.
While retailers are criticized for not doing enough to keep extremely violent games out of the hands of children, the report is especially harsh when it comes to parents. According to the Institute, seven out of 10 know little or nothing about the video game rating system. Furthermore, only 37 percent of parents rarely use the ratings when deciding what games to allow their children to play.
"One of the messages of the report card for the last couple of years, and it's again this year, is that we parents need to step up," Walsh said. "We need to know what are kids are playing."
The best way for parents to do that, according to the report, is by playing those video games with their kids. The Institute believes that a lack of monitoring may be one of the reasons that 50 percent of young players and 79 percent of young teens admit to playing games with the M rating.
The report was also critical of the games themselves, specifically citing "Assassin's Creed," "Stranglehold" and "The Darkness" as ones Santa should not leave under the tree.
The Institute is a Minnesota-based nonprofit that offers commentary and research on the media and the family.
Should 'Locked' Scenes Count in Ratings?
The report comes on the heels of a months-long controversy over the violent video game "Manhunt 2," which nabbed an M rating from the ESRB. It avoided the often sales-killing rating of "Adults Only," which nearly all gaming stores refuse to stock, by blurring out scenes deemed to be too violent.
Despite the M rating, Target announced last month that it would not sell the game after reports that the blurred scenes could be unlocked on the PlayStation Portable.
"It's a big blow, in the sense of that's a place where people are buying lots of games. As a result, it's going to reduce the number of people that will see it," Michael Gartenberg, the vice president and research director of Jupiter research, told ABCNEWS.com last month. "But it kind of underscores the fact that older gamers are looking for mature content, and at the same point that retailers are going to be sensitive to the content that they put on the shelves," including video games.
After the hacking stories came to light, the ESRB reviewed its rating of "Manhunt 2," but decided to keep it rated M. In its report, the Institute took the ratings board to task on this issue, calling its argument that hackers are breaking the law "nonsense."
"M-rated games, officially sanctioned for 17-year-olds and widely available to much younger children, should not contain easily unblurable or unlockable AO-rated adult content, 'blurred' or not," the Institute writes. "The ratings procedures should take into account not only all the official content of regular gameplay, but all of the code on the discs."
Despite the report, the young players themselves seem indifferent. Thirteen-year-old videogame enthusiast Connor Maxwell told ABC News that the games have no real impact on him.
"I'll play 'Grand Theft Auto' for like an hour straight and I'll go on missions where you have to do drive-bys and stuff, but I'm not going go get a gun and attack someone," Maxwell said.
One thing the report card said that kids and parents agree on, these games are increasingly causing family friction.