Video game industry pushes ratings education amid debate about violence

March 13, 2013

Parents puzzling over which video games to buy for their children can get a quick read on what’s in a game by looking at the rating on the box. Like movie ratings, these labels offer a rough guideline to the kinds of actions parents can expect once they crack open the box. And, as with movies, there are plenty of people who don’t understand — or who disagree with — the industry’s ratings.

To teach more people about its ratings, the Entertainment Software Association and Entertainment Software Ratings Board announced a public education campaign Monday to let parents know about the ratings systems used for video games. The ESA and ESRB will be running a series of national and local public service announcements, including on video game platforms such as Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Sony’s PlayStation Network, and in stores such as Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Game Stop to reach parents as they shop.

The discussion around video game violence has accelerated in the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., prompting the White House to request more research into the link between real-world violence and video games that show graphic or explicit material.

The ESRB ratings are decided by a panel of its own game raters chosen specifically because they have experience with children — as parents, for example, or as educators — and a familiarity with video games. Research released by the ESRB shows 88 percent of parents find its ratings helpful. Under the industry’s ratings, games with crude violence, some blood and infrequent use of strong language are only suitable for those 13 and up. Titles with attributes such as intense violence, blood and gore and sexual content are only recommended for those 17 and up.

Still, some groups have raised questions about how the board’s decisions are made, and whether there should be some outside influence on what ratings games receive.

For example, a group organized by hospitality and service workers union Unite Here recently wrote to the ESRB to protest the rating of a Ultimate Fighting Championship game. Members of Unite Here, which has raised concerns about UFC fighting and its influence on children in the past, felt that the game’s content should have earned it a “Mature” rather than “Teen” rating and was particularly disturbed to see moves in the game that aren’t even legal in the sport itself that appeared to glorify violence.

“Games do influence our youth on their perception of what is acceptable,” said Leslie Lilla, who serves on the group’s parents committee.

The ESRB responded that it felt its rating was appropriate in the context of other fighting games and based on its own research about what parents find acceptable for children over the age of 13. While acknowledging that some parents could rightfully be disturbed by some actions in the game, ESRB president Patricia Vance said that it’s only the ESRB’s place to provide a baseline assessment of what’s in the game.

“The ESRB, for its part, is not an arbiter of what does or does not serve a purpose in games,” Vance wrote. “We are not a censor. We merely seek to provide a consumer with guidance that allows them to make an informed decision.”

Diane Levin, co-founder of the children’s advocacy group Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment, signed on to the letter protesting the rating. She said she wants parents to have a larger voice in how ratings are set. Levin would like to see child psychologists and sociologists from outside the ESRB contribute their insights to the panel that sets and applies criteria for ratings systems.

“Rating systems give parents a way to process what’s in these games. But there’s very little discussion about how those ratings are set,” she said. “We need to enter the process at as many levels as we can,” she said.

Those with questions or complaints about the ESRB can currently contact the ratings board through a form on its site.

Related stories:

Wonkblog: What we know about video games and violence

Video game debate: Rep. Blackburn ‘astounded’ by ‘Call of Duty’ violence

Why the video game industry has to talk about gun violence

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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