Game Ratings Don't Always Tell Whole Story

April 5, 2006 -- -- When buying video or computer games, you may be getting more than you paid for, according to a new study by the Harvard School of Public Health. More sex, violence and obscene language, that is.

The study looked at the much-scrutinized video- and computer-game ratings system, which uses a combination of ratings -- such as "M" for mature or "T" for teen -- and content descriptors to alert buyers to any potentially offensive or age-sensitive material, like profanity, violence, or drug and alcohol use.

Researchers specifically targeted games rated M -- for gamers 17 and older -- and found that 81 percent of the games used in the study were mislabeled and and had missing content descriptors.

They found that parents rely on these ratings to make decisions about what is and is not appropriate for their children, and that descriptors that are missing or used inconsistently may unfairly influence their decisions.

These Games Are Not for Kids

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who has been an outspoken critic of the video game industry's self-policing policies and has called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct a study on the impact of violent games on kids, was not surprised.

"These findings are yet another reminder of the need to help parents who are struggling to monitor the content available to their children," Clinton said in a statement to "We need to do everything we can to help arm parents with this kind of information to allow them to make informed decisions about what video games are appropriate for their children."

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board argued that any game rated M is not intended for children in the first place, regardless of what descriptors are on the packaging, and that an M rating should be enough to let parents know the game is not for kids.

"The study … simply confirms what most parents and gamers already know," said an ESRB statement, "that games rated M (mature 17+) have content that is not suitable for young players."

Still, some of the most popular games among children are rated M, and some parents see nothing wrong with letting their kids play them.

'It's Nothing They Don't See on the Evening News'

Theresa Dunn said she has no problem letting her two teenage daughters play games like "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."

Meghan, 16, and Ashlei, 13, are not violent kids, she said. And even though she lets them play violent and sexually explicit games, she said they're not affected by them.

"I watch my children enough and know them, and if I thought that they had tendencies to be violent or do something that they saw in one of these games, I wouldn't let them play," explained Dunn. "They know they could never steal a car in real, life because they'd get arrested or they'd have to deal with me."

Regardless of which punishment sounds more frightening, Dunn believes it is the responsibility of parents to know their kids and to make decisions based on who they are.

"You have to know your children," she said, "and there are children who show violent tendencies and they shouldn't have these games."

Some other parents said there's nothing in any of these so-called violent games that doesn't appear on the nightly news or that's much different from the games they played as kids.

"My son sees violence and terrorism on the news daily, knows it's reality, and technology [video games] allows him to act as one of the 'good guys' battling terrorists," Andrew Rhodes, father of a 10-year-old gamer and a gamer himself, wrote in an e-mail. "When I was his age, all the kids in our neighborhood regularly played 'war' with toy guns. We watched old WWII movies and had Vietnam live on TV."

Rhodes said he makes use of all available resources like the Entertainment Software Rating Board's system, what he sees and reads on the game's packaging, and reviews he reads online to determine whether or not a game is appropriate for his child.

Getting the ESRB to Change Its Ways

One of the study's authors, Kimberley Thompson, is an associate professor of risk analysis decision science and as creator and director of Harvard's Kids Risk Project has done a great deal of research on the impact of media on children

Thompson agreed that parents need to be educated about the games they buy for their children and suggested they participate in their child's video game play time.

But she also said the way the ESRB determines ratings needs to change to arm parents with the information they need to make the right choices.

When the ESRB rates a game, it doesn't actually play it; raters instead rely on a detailed questionnaire filled out by the game's developer and video footage of the game in action, which is expected to include anything relevant to the ratings decision.

Several raters evaluate the material and recommend a rating and specific content descriptors, and their recommendations are reviewed by the ESRB. The organization also says it reviews the final packaging for games to see if it is appropriate for the chosen rating.

The organization also says ESRB game testers randomly play final versions of games to make sure the process was "accurate and complete."

"We feel it's very important that the board play the final game before they apply a rating," Thompson said.

The "Hot Coffee" Incident

As an example, Thompson pointed to last year's discovery of sexually explicit "unlockable" material in the smash-hit game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" from Rockstar Games.

What became popularly known as the "Hot Coffee incident" was a mini game within the game that allowed players to engage in sexual acts with the main character's girlfriends.

The material was not disclosed to the ratings board, and therefore its presence was not indicated on the game's packaging.

"The Hot Coffee incident was very important to show that it's crucial for manufacturers to disclose to the ESRB exactly what's inside the game," she said. "But it also shows that the people rating these games need to play them."

ESRB president Patricia Vance insisted the example wasn't relevant to questions about the rating system, because the objectionable material was not accessible during normal game play.

"It's important to recognize that the scenes in question were not programmed to be accessible during game play," Vance said in a statement to ABC News. "They only became available after a third party hacked into the game's code. Even if each rater had played that game from start to finish, they still would not have found it. No rating system could have."

The ESRB argued that the researchers in this study want to see game packages littered with descriptors for "every type of content possibly encountered in a game, no matter how fleeting or insignificant the impact on the playing experience may be."

"They also substitute their own criteria and definitions when assigning content descriptors, which differ from those used by ESRB raters," the statement read. "We have repeatedly informed the authors of these flaws in their methodology, but it continues to be used in this research."

Parents Make the Best Rating System

With all of the talk about how games affect children, and cries from politicians and others to reduce the amount of sex and violence in them, parents like Rhodes said no rating system or descriptor can replace supervision.

He suggested parents spend time researching the games they buy their kids -- and themselves.

It may seem like a time-consuming thing to do just to buy a video game, but learn all you can before you make a purchase," he said in an e-mail. "You take time to learn about the best car seats for your child. You learn about what the best books are for your own child to read. You even take the time to learn what your child does or doesn't like to eat, while still seeking the most nutritious foods for them.

"It shouldn't be any different when choosing a video game."

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