Video Games Beyond Repair?

The National Institute on Media and the Family released their 10th annual assessment of the state of the $25 billion-a-year video game industry today, and it's not good news.

According to the "MediaWise Video and Computer Game Report Card," the companies that make video games are more concerned with profits than protecting children from violent and sexually graphic material.

The report claims that "killographic and sexually explicit games are still making their way into the hands of millions of underage players," despite the report's yearly criticism.

Video game retailers were given a "B" for creating company policies about selling "M" -- or "mature" -- rated games, but were slapped with a "D-" when it comes to enforcement.

A Broken System?

Joined at a press conference by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., David Walsh, president and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, said, "We believe that the ESRB [Entertainment Software Ratings Board] ratings system is broken and needs to be fixed."

According to the ESRB Web site, it is "a self-regulatory body for the interactive entertainment software industry" that "independently applies and enforces ratings, advertising guidelines, and online privacy principles adopted by the computer and video game industry."

As the ratings stand now, there are 6 ratings symbols: "eC" for early childhood, "E" for everyone, "10+E" for everyone over 10, "T" for teen, "M" for mature and "AO" for adults only.

In addition to these ratings, the ESRB includes a list of content descriptors to detail specific elements that might be considered offensive, including violence, alcohol references or nudity.

No one from the ESRB was immediately available for comment.

Concern for Profits Trumps Accurate Game Ratings

Still, Walsh says, the system is ineffective because the games are not rated properly.

"Just 18 of the 10,000 games on the market are actually rated 'AO,'" said Walsh. "The reason is not because they don't have the games that fit the criteria, the reason is that they can't sell those games."

Walsh claims that during the course of the institute's study, they found that video and computer games have seen a 3,000 percent increase in profanity since the 1990s, an 800 percent increase in sexual content and a 46 percent increase in "specific acts" of violence. Still, the ratings system has remained the same.

Profits, he says, are what motivates the ESRB to avoid using the "AO" rating, the industry equivalent of an X-rated film.

"The ratings should be driven by their [video and computer games'] impact on children," Walsh said in a telephone interview, "not by commercial impact and the ESRB ratings are driven by commercial interests."

The Bad Guys

The report is nothing new to video game expert Dan Morris who says people involved in the video game industry are often portrayed as unscrupulous and concerned only with lining their pockets.

"We typically tend to be cast as the bad guys in a moral play up against mothers and church leaders who are trying to protect their kids," he said. "Needless to say at the same time accusations are coming from institutes like this, we've got the FTC singling out the video game industry among all other industries for the effectiveness of its efforts to prevent the marketing of violent content to kids."

Morris argues that the premise that video games have become increasingly violent and that the industry has become increasingly lax in its efforts to keep the wrong games out of kids' hands, is just wrong.

He goes on to say that people need to understand that video and computer games are not just for kids anymore but that as long as politicians and others are able to score "no-risk political points" when they attack the industry, it will continue.

"Even if we granted it that 'millions of copies of violent games are making their way into the hands of underage players,'" he said, "it's not because the video game industry is selling the games off the backs of trucks in schoolyards.

Morris claims that 70 percent to 80 percent of video game purchases are made by adults who buy their children M-rated games out of ignorance.

It's a point that the National Institute on Media and the Family makes in the report card as well as with their motto "Watch what your kids watch."

Still, Morris contends that the institute could be doing a lot more good if their goal was to help rather than to get publicity.

"If the National Institute on Media and the Family really wants to help, they'd take all this energy they're expending on these 'killology' reports, and spend this energy on educating their members and educating parents around the country about the rating system," he said. "That might actually do some good."

Hotter Coffee

The institute's report comes in the same year that saw the latest installment of the popular Grand Theft Auto series embroiled in a scandal when it was revealed that the game contains a hidden code that allowed players to engage in sexual acts.

The uncovered game material was dubbed "Hot Coffee" because after the player finished a successful date with one of his in-game girlfriends, he would be invited in for a hot cup of java.

"Hot Coffee" caused a media frenzy and national outrage as elected officials stood in line to denounce the industry and call for hearings.

Also this year, several states, including Michigan and California put forth legislation to punish retailers who sell video games with questionable material to minors.

In Michigan the law hit a snag when a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction stopping the law from going into effect until a lawsuit by the gaming industry is resolved.

The IEMA -- or Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association -- said in a statement that although they're pleased with some of the report's findings, they feel that the way in which the Institute does their research is deeply flawed.

"We have repeatedly requested that the National Institute on Media and the Family disclose their methodology so that we may better understand how they cull their results and [have] been denied year after year," the statement said.