When it comes to behavior, videogames and the gaming community at large always seem to be on the receiving end of some criticism. There always seems to be some important-sounding scientist clad in a lab coat somewhere talking about how their study links videogames to violent tendencies in young children, and how it’s to blame for all the world’s ills. That can’t be totally right. I’ve been playing games since I was a wee lad of seven as did many of my friends, and over 20 years later we all are contributing to society, holding down good jobs, maintaining healthy relationships with others, and… there was one more thing… oh right, we’ve never gone on uncontrollable streaks of game-fueled violence.
I understand that my crew may not be a representative sample of gamers at large, but in my head, whenever I see one of those studies in the news all I can think about is how these games got into the hands of children to begin with. Do parents these days bond with their 10-year-olds through a rousing game of Grand Theft Auto? They’re not flying blind – parents have help from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) to show them the content of games like movie ratings do, so they can determine which games are appropriate from their kids. ESRB ratings range from EC (early childhood, i.e. a “G” movie) all the way up to AO (adults only, i.e. an “NC-17” movie) with many steps in between. For example, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz is rated “E” for everyone, while the upcoming L.A. Noire is rated “M” for players 17 and up. They’re pretty clear guidelines that are easy enough for parents to follow, but with older kids, parents have less control, leaving it up to retailers to enforce ESRB ratings.
Through part time jobs, allowances, birthday money, or whatever, kids and young teenagers are able to buy games themselves instead of asking mom and dad. It’s a primary argument of many anti-game groups – that kids and teens have almost unfettered access to mature content and games without any sort of adult supervision. So how does the industry prevent these kids from buying games that are meant for older audiences? Should they be carded like someone going to see an R rated movie or buying an adult DVD? Well… yeah. This is where enforcement of ESRB ratings has to come into play. Most people reading this have probably never been carded buying an M-rated videogame and may think that ratings do nothing for actually filtering who plays what, but there is some work being done.
To investigate how successful industry enforcement is in digital entertainment, the Federal Trade Commission runs a yearly “secret shopper” study, in which they hire 13-16 year olds to try to get into R-rated movies and buy mature rated media such as R-rated/unrated DVDs, CDs carrying parental advisory labels, and M-rated videogames. The study showed mixed results through the different forms of media. Sixty-four percent of teen shoppers who tried to buy CDs with the PAL label were successful. R-rated DVDs fared a little better with 38%, and box offices allowed about a third of the teens in the study into R-rated movies. The most successful segment left the others in the dust, and that segment was videogames. Game retailers only allowed 13% of their shoppers looking for M-rated games to get their hands on them. That 13% figure is incredible, and a vast improvement over the 20% mark from the FTC’s last similar study.
Perhaps this could turn the tide with anti-game groups? According to the official FTC report on this year’s study, their arguments hold less and less ground every year since every iteration of the FTC study shows higher levels of enforcement. These results have seemed to already have made some impact. Family advocacy group Common Sense Media is praising the efforts of retailers to enforce ESRB ratings in the Los Angeles Times, but not without adding their opinion as well, “It’s good to see signs that retailers are making progress on enforcing the ESRB ratings about content that’s not designed for kids,” said Alan Simpson, vice president of policy for Common Sense Media. The VP of the advocacy group in San Francisco added, “But as the FTC points out, there is more work to be done. The study is a reminder of how important it is to have adults making sure that unaccompanied kids aren’t purchasing M-rated games – and it raises serious questions about the ESRB’s troubling decision to use computers, instead of adults, to auto-rate downloadable games.”
I’m interested to see how this report will affect the outcome of the videogame laws in California, a high profile case which is still in limbo. And, on a personal note to the FTC, if you’re looking to offload some of those games you picked up during the study, you know where to find me.
… Fine, you can play too.