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Video Game Ratings Don't Tell the Whole Story

Content of Teen-Rated Video Games May Surprise Parents
By
WebMD Health News

Feb. 18, 2004 -- Video games rated as appropriate for teens may often contain additional content that could surprise or shock many players and their parents, according to a new study.

Researchers found rating labels issued by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) don't always accurately describe the content of the video game.

For example, the study showed video games rated "T" (for teen) by the ESRB frequently contained violence, profanity, or sexual conduct that wasn't mentioned on the rating label.

"These findings suggest the need for greater clarity and transparency in the use of ESRB content descriptors and in the overall rating process," says researcher Kevin Haninger, a doctoral student at Harvard University, in a news release.

Video Game Ratings Lacking

In the study, published in today's Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers examined the content of a random sample of 81 of the 396 T-rated video games available on the market by April 1, 2001.

Each game was played for an hour, and researchers evaluated depictions of the following types of content:

  • Violence
  • Blood
  • Sexual themes
  • Gambling
  • Alcohol, tobacco, or other drug use
  • Whether injuring or killing characters is rewarded or required to advance in the game
  • Use of profanity in dialogue, lyrics, or gestures

Researchers then compared the content encountered during play and compared it to the content descriptors assigned by the ESRB.

In their sample of 81 games, researchers found 51 instances where the video game content could warrant such a descriptor but the ESRB had not assigned one.

More than 95% of the action, adventure, fighting, and shooting games viewed by the researchers contained violence, so parents can reasonably assume that T-rated video games will contain violence, say the researchers.

Yet they also found the following:

  • Thirty-four of the 81 video games contained depictions of blood, but only 22 games had received the blood content descriptor.
  • Twenty-two of the 81 video games depicted sexual themes, but only 16 games had a content descriptor for sexual themes.
  • Twenty-two games contained profanity, but only 14 video games had profanity content descriptors.
  • Twelve games depicted substance use, but only one game had received a content descriptor for it.

The study also showed that 90% of games rewarded or required the player to injure characters, and 69% rewarded or required the player to kill characters. Researchers say those types of details are not relayed on the content labels, which only list those types of content as "violence."

Researchers say their observations matched the ESRB's content descriptors for violence in 95% of the cases, for blood in 27%, for sexual themes in 20%, for profanity in 17%, and for substance use in 1%.

They say their findings suggest that more accurate and descriptive content ratings are needed for video games.

"More uniform and complete information about game content will enable parents to make more informed decisions, and greater transparency in the rating process will help maintain confidence in the rating system," says Haninger.

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