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Parents ambivalent about using video game ratings

Sunday, December 23, 2007 | 5:04 p.m. CST; updated 5:59 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — So you’ve done your Christmas shopping, and you’ve bought three video games for your children. If you haven’t taken a look at the games’ ratings on the back of the box, you’re not alone.

Although the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has been issuing ratings since 1994, research by the National Institute on Media and the Family shows that nearly three out of four parents feel they know little to nothing about the rating system.

How the ESRB rating system works

Underneath the bold letter on the back of a video game box indicating the initial rating, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) includes content descriptors such as “violence,” “foul language,” and “drug use” with more specific phrases. Violence is further described as “fantasy violence,” “cartoon violence” or “intense violence.” While the rating system is voluntary, most video game publishers sell only games that carry an ESRB rating, according to the ESRB Web site. The ESRB’s system for rating games is similar to the Motion Picture Association of America’s film rating system. Unlike the MPAA’s rating system, the ESRB has ratings for more specific age groups. In order to be rated, publishers are required to provide a detailed written response to an ESRB questionnaire, which is often supplemented by lyrics and scripts, according to the ESRB Web site. Publishers must also provide a video, either in DVD or tape format, that contains all content relevant to the rating system. This tape includes any — but is not limited to — instances of violence, language, substance abuse or sex. A panel of at least three raters then examines all submitted content; panelists individually assign the ratings they feel are most helpful to consumers, especially parents, said Eliot Mizrachi, ESRB assistant director in an e-mail. Once rated, video game publishers are legally required to accurately portray the nature, content and rating of the game in their marketing campaigns without glamorizing the rating, Mizrachi said. Advertisements cannot contain content that would be offensive to the average consumer or be marketed towards a lower age group than appropriate. The ESRB’s Advertising Review Council monitors industry compliance in TV, print and online advertisements. If a game publisher violates the industry-adopted guidelines, the ESRB will impose sanctions including monetary fines, according to the ESRB Web site. EC= Early childhood, ages 3+ E= everyone 6+ E 10+= Everyone 10+ T= Teen 13+ M= Mature 17+ AO= Adults only 18+


In an annual video game report card based on research from 2007, the National Institute of Media and the Family gave parental involvement a C.

“Since information on the rating is now widely available, parental complacence seems to be one important factor in parents’ failure to make use of the ratings,” the report states. “It is time for parents to take video games seriously.”

The institute’s report card also recommends that parents become better educated about the rating system and parental controls that are offered by PlayStation 3, X-Box 360 and the Wii.

The institute’s annual report card also gave grades to retailers. Overall, retailer policies were given a C-, because of uneducated employees and retailers who did not provide information for families, the report said.

Only 30 percent of local retailers provided information, according to the institute.

Recent visits to all 11 video game retailers or renters in Columbia revealed that only Slackers and FYE did not have signs or pamphlets out in the open about the rating system.

Representatives of both Slackers on Broadway and FYE in the Columbia Mall take the view that the product is well-marked and employees are helpful and trained not to sell games to minors.

Toys ‘R’ Us seemed to be the most adept at educating and helping parents find an age-appropriate game. Aside from the large signs that top the racks of video games that remind parents to check the rating, the Columbia store has organized games by console platform and ESRB rating. As another safeguard, the store keeps all M-rated games behind the counter, so a shopper must ask a sales associate before looking at them.

But the truth is, there’s no enforcement of retailer rules. The institute’s report card gave national retailers a D, specialty stores a B and rental stores an F. Specialty stores, such as Game Stop and EB games, showed improvement in policy enforcement while the “big box retailers” category has worsened, slipping from an A to a D. The institute was stern with rental stores.

“The rental retailers are dropping the ball completely and remain an embarrassing blight on the video game industry,” the report said.

There are also no laws in Missouri regulating the sale of M-rated video games to minors, according to GamePolitics.com, a blog about politics and video games. In 1992, the Video Software Dealers Association and others appealed a Missouri statute that attempted to restrict the sale or rental of “violent” video games and videos to minors and require that they be kept in a separate section in the store.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit found that violent videos and video games do not fall within the realm of obscenity, which is usually reserved for sexually explicit content.

Laws in at least six states treating M-rated video games as pornography have been ruled unconstitutional, according to a database on GamePolitics.com. The video game industry has not challenged laws requiring that stores provide information about the video game rating system automatically or on request.

By the numbers:

88 percent of tweens (a child age 10-13) and 87 percent of teens who bought an M-rated video game did so with a parent beside them.

28 percent of tweens and 49 percent of teens were never stopped by parents from getting a video game because of its rating.

51 percent of tweens and 22 percent of teens have never played M-rated games.

90 percent of tweens and 93 percent of teens who bought an M-rated game did so with their parents’ knowledge.

30 percent of tweens and 45 percent of teens report that their parents know little to nothing about the ESRB rating.

5 percent of tweens and 10 percent of teens report that their parents know little to nothing about the moving ratings.

25 percent of parents report they have never seen the M rating.

72 percent of parents report they know little to nothing about ESRB ratings.

15 percent of parents report they know little to nothing about movie ratings.

58 percent of parents report that they rarely or never use the ESRB system to choose games.

Source: 12th Annual MediaWise Video Game Report Card presented bythe National Institute on Media and the Family, with results from the 2007 MediaWise-Harris Interactive Poll.


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