The Farce of the "Video Game Report Card"

For 10 years now, video gamers have been subjected to the mainstream media reporting on the National Institute on Media and the Family's video game report card. This biased, ridiculous, manipulating, and sometimes even funny document needs to be dissected just to view it in the proper light. That's what will happen here.

As always, the report begins by discussing sales and how large the industry has grown. They move on quickly to ratings accuracy, and include this line:

The system supposedly put in place to keep killographic games out of the hands of kids seems to often produce the opposite results

"Killographic." That's their own homegrown term, and it's right up there with "Murder Simulator." Both seem to be used interchangeably. Continuing:

In early July, we discovered that explicit pornography was included in the top selling video game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Apparently, they were the ones that hacked into the title to find the hidden and completely NON-pornographic content. Just to see the content, it required an outside device and a large amount of time involved in the game. There's no mention of that anywhere in the report.

The so-called "hot coffee" scandal does not simply reveal the bad faith of one of the industry's most prominent companies; it has shown once and for all that the present rating system is broken and can't be fixed.

It's always amusing how these organizations will find one game to single out, and usually, it seems to be GTA. While Rockstar is the furthest thing from innocent (even if the situation was blowing further out of proportion than the Janet Jackson "mishap"), saying the rating system is broken because of some lost code on a game disc is absurd, and it only gets worse from here.

The ESRB video game rating system, like its cousins in the movie and television industries is owned and operated by the industry it is supposed to monitor.

Never mind the music industry that has a bland descriptor on the CD case with no other warnings such as what the language pertains to (sex, violence, etc.), and books can never be attacked. They're too educational, not to mention an accepted form of entertainment. They also seem to have no problem with the film and TV industry rating system even though the ESRB is run the same, and arguably the most noticeable and detailed.

Study after study shows that ratings would be stricter if parents were doing the job.

Note there is no link to any "study," and if parents were doing their job, there would be no need for their organization or this editorial piece.

It took explicit porn to get Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas an AO rating, even though the original version, still rated M, rewards players whose onscreen persona had sex with prostitutes and then killed them

There's "explicit porn" again. Second, why do these groups always say "kill prostitutes after having sex with them?" Shouldn't "killing police needlessly" be more effective? Of course not. Killing prostitutes and sex in the same sentence sounds better on TV and in the papers. Manipulation 101.

In response to the ESRB's recent failure, the National Institute on Media and the Family will convene a summit next year on video game ratings with the leading national organizations... We plan to issue and endorse a set of ratings recommendations.

This is their response to the happenings this year. No one on their list of organizations is even remotely involved with the industry. Even funnier, later in their report, they say 43% of parents understand the current ratings system. While it's agreeable that's a low number, they're planning on instituting a new rating system? What will that do to the 43% of parents who do understand the current one?

The report now moves into the retail sector, slapping blame on them for this "crisis."

Our survey of retailers found that 80 percent of store personnel were able to describe their stores' policies.

If the majority of part time, hourly employees can understand the system, what's stopping parents? And what are kids doing alone in a major retailer alone? If their parents are not close by, that's not the fault of the retailer in any form.

In one case, for example, a clerk at a major retailer asked our Secret Shopper his age when he attempted to buy an M-rated game. He replied with his true birth date. When the cash register would not let her complete the sale because he was under 17 she told him that she would change the birth date so that he could get the game. They both smiled and he walked out with the game.

I would certainly hope that employee no longer has a job. Even if it's not his responsibility to monitor a child's purchasing habits, it's clearly a blatant disregard of store policy. If something like this happens and they're concerned, the supervisor would be the one to talk to.

Unfortunately, when it comes to video games, parents do not seem to be paying attention... only half of the parents say they were with their children the last time they purchased a game.

They could end their report right here. The problem has been solved. Does this truly mean that half the parents in this survey do NOT know where their children are or what they're buying? This is the most depressing stat in this report.

This year, our student survey found that seven out of 10 children report playing M-rated games, and three out of five kids named an M-rated game as one of their favorites. Nearly half of the more than 300 boys who participated in the study named an M-rated title as their most favorite game.

Why wouldn't they enjoy them? Some of the best games this year are M rated, regardless of their content. Ask any gamer that same question and if they've played them, they'll likely list one of them as their favorite. That's logic, something these surveys are lacking.

Their study now begins to push out statistics, particularly those pertaining to students with an average age around 13-14.

This survey clearly shows that M-rated games are more popular than ever..

Of course they are. Again, some of the best games in recent years have been rated M. The question is how are these young children gaining access to them? Keep reading:

Almost half of children (45%) say they have bought M-rated games themselves (up from 37% in 2003)... Only 55% of children said a parent was present the last time they bought an M-rated game (down from 65% in 2003)... Only 26% say that a parent has ever stopped them from getting a video game because of its rating (28% boys, 23% girls)... Less than half (47%) of children say their parents understand all of the ESRB ratings.

There's the key problem, again spelled out in their own numbers.

As technology advances, and the lines between different media begin to blur, it becomes more and more difficult for parents to determine what is and isn't good for their kids.

How exactly is this increasingly difficult? Why is it hard to pick up an ESRB flyer in the store and read it? How is it even possible to miss the huge ESRB rating on the front and back of the box? Oh wait, half the parent surveyed weren't even with the kids when they purchased the games.

Time to move back to the retailer's court:

There has been a great deal of attention paid to retailers this year as legislation restricting kids' access to Mature-rated games sweeps the country.

"Sweeps" the country? No mention on how these laws have failed in every state, and if they haven't, are currently being challenged? Seems like they're missing important details.

Seventy-one percent of the stores say they educate the public about the ESRB rating system (72% in 2004).

That's higher than that number should be. Why are retail establishments educating parents in the first place? If this organization is so adamant about education, they should be supporting the ERSB to push TV, magazine, and even radio ads if need be.

A majority (97%) of the retail personnel say they personally understand the ESRB rating system.

That's a high number. Regardless of where they work, if a part time employee can grasp the simple concept of giant bold letters on a box, there's no reason for the public not to, including those people who are raising our future.

This fall, children between the ages of 9 and 16 entered retail stores and attempted to purchase M-rated games without adult supervision... Of the 46 attempts, 20 resulted in successful purchases. This 44% success rate is significantly higher than 2004 (34%).

Again, "without adult supervision." These stings are always entertaining. Sending a nine year old into a store alone is not only dangerous; it's stupid. Never mind the video game they're purchasing. That should be the least of our worries at this point when we're leaving them alone in a big store. Parents are arrested for this very behavior, that or their kids are kidnapped.

Ok, that is a bit much, but these weak studies are constantly being performed. Why? What does this prove besides that a nine year old can make major purchases by themselves? The retailer is not the problem.
Now is the time for them to dive into the faults of the ESRB.

But most parents do not have the time, the interest, or skill to play every video game their kids use. This is why there is a ratings system in place.

They get one right. If they don't have the time, which is understandable, it doesn't excuse them from basic responsibilities.

Using data generated by PSVratings, a content-based ratings system measuring actual levels of profanity, sex, and violence, we found that games in 2004 were on average more violent, contained more sexual content and had more profane language when compared to games from the late '90s.

This statement, from the point of any gamer, should be the most asinine in the entire report. Not only were we just coming into the 3-D era back in the late 90s, games were finally coming into their own and following Hollywood. Games could talk to us, expensive (and famous) actors were starting to be used, and the realism was beginning to be unparalleled. It's obvious there will be an increase in sex and violence when the games are bigger and more squarely aimed at the adult market, the very same group of people video games are targeted at.

By 2004 all (100%) of the M-rated games contained some level of profanity and sexual content.

That's a stretch at best. Their definition of true "sexual content" would be interesting. It's not provided.

The games we analyzed from last year were 30 times more likely to contain profanity than those from the '90s, and the average prevalence of sexual content increased a whopping 800%.

Of course. Gamers are not just aimed at kids anymore, and it's the biggest statistic missing here. The sex content is going to take that huge leap when the hardware was finally powerful enough to showcase some actual emotional human storylines, which to the dismay of others, may actually include love. "Adult content" on the first Playstation was not something we wanted to see given the meager graphics capabilities.

Kids are six times more likely to see nude or partially nude figures in M-rated video games today than they were in the late 1990s. Yet the ratings haven't changed.

We'll never know what they mean by "partially nude," but even still, a snippet of nudity does not, nor should it ever, change a rating. It's only nudity.

... we see that violence in the video games from 2004 increased 46% from the late '90s.

Again, they back this up with nothing, and there's no link to how this statistic was determined. If the increase is due to anything, it's the technology and (again) the always climbing average age demographic.

The continual increase in adult content, the failure to use the AO rating, and the "hot coffee" scandal of 2005 all point toward the deep flaws in the ESRB rating system.

If we should blame retailers for anything, it's their constant refusal to stock AO games. They have no problems carrying the latest "unrated" DVD on their shelves, but when the adult video games come out, no one puts them on shelves. It's hypocritical, and in the end, it's places like the National Institute on the Media and the Family that pressure them not to. That leaves this group in the hypocritical situation of standing up and speaking against video games, which ALWAYS have a rating, but not those movies (which contain actual real nudity!) just down the isle.

Their end recommendations however are almost logical, including the last one:

We call upon the video game industry to join us in educating parents about the need to supervise their children's game play. The industry's efforts so far have educated parents about how to use the ratings but not why the ratings and the new electronic tools built into game consoles are important for children's health.

These reports don't seem to help the industry towards that goal though. They read like an attack. If a parent doesn't understand why the ratings are important in the first place, there's a bigger problem at work.
Finally, we come to the always hilariously misrepresented recommendations for this holiday season. Of note:

Peter Jackson's King Kong

Trek through dark jungles while being chased by blood thirsty dinosaurs attempting to eat the player. Take control of a giant ape and rip apart the jaws of other dinosaurs. Perfect family fun for you and yours!

Sly 3: Honor Amongst Thieves

Hey kids! It's ok to steal as long as you're a cartoon character!

Sid Meier's Pirates!

Raid villages! Attack innocent townspeople with cannons! Steal plunder! Take the mayor's daughter! Become a pirate today!

Finally, after that fun, their conclusions and a long winded section on various studies, most of which they admit flat out were flawed:

... violent video games coax players into actual aggression and antagonistic attitudes.

Studies have shown an increase in aggression when children play video games. They would then logically show an increase in aggression when they're playing football on the school playground. All the research has shown is a temporary period (not long term), which is only logical when you're running around with a gun, in a video game or outside your house in the summer with a Super Soaker.

In their last recap paragraph, buried in a sea of text:

Finally, it could be argued that the pattern of effects is driven by methodologically flawed studies - that is, poorer quality studies show a large effect, but high-quality studies show small or no effects.

That sums this one up nicely. The better and more thorough the study, the weaker the results are in their favor. However, at the beginning of this same section:

If there was ever any doubt about the impact of video games on children it has finally been laid to rest... Everyone in the scientific community agrees.

Hypocritical, lost, or just wasting our time? You make the call.

Comments (4)

I'm vaguely in awe that you took the time to tear that thing apart so methodically, but I'm glad you did. Good read and good points.

I did it last year too, just with a different group:

http://www.breakingwindows.com/new/2005/01/the_iccr_cluele.php

Those people were even worse.

Tyler, I think he ran out of movies to watch, or games to play, or SOMETHING. :) But yes, good write up Matt.

Wow. Even the ESRB fired back at them. I've NEVER seen them do this, even after being ripped apart by the GTA SA "problem." Guess I wasn't the only one to find their report absurd:

http://www.esrb.com/about_updates.asp#12-6-05

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