The National Institute on Media and the Family's 10th annual Video Game Report Card gives poor grades to game makers and retailers alike.
The institute's secret shopper survey found that 44 percent of child buyers were able to buy M-rated games with sexual and violent content intended for those aged 17 and over — an increase of 10 percent from a 2004 study.
It found kids as young as eight or nine were able to buy M-rated, or mature, video games in most stores. A notable exception was Best Buy, which got an A-plus for 100 percent enforcement of ratings restrictions.
Hal Halpin, head of Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association, pointed out that secret underage shoppers were turned down 56 percent of the time — nearly three times the number rejected in a 2000 study.
"This overall trend demonstrates strong and growing retailer commitment to video game rating enforcement, although clearly we are not yet where we want to be as an industry," said Halpin.
Institute president and founder David Walsh, meanwhile, cited increases of 3,000 percent in profanity and 800 percent in sexual content in M-rated games since the 1990s. He also said the industry's Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which assigns game ratings, is "broken and beyond repair." Walsh's group plans to organize a summit next year to create a new ratings system.
The ratings board responded in a statement saying it "rejected" the report card.
"Ignoring the tremendous and verifiable success of the ESRB rating system, NIMF instead relies on flawed research and ignores any and all conflicting evidence," the statement said.
Walsh says the rating system for video games doesn't accurately represent game content and parents don't understand it anyway. Walsh's group plans to organize a summit next year to create a new ratings system.
The ratings board responds by saying, "The simple fact remains that the ESRB ratings are the most effective, recognized and trustworthy ratings for video games, and parents can and should rely on them in making game choices for their families. Our most recent nationwide survey of parents found that they agree with the ESRB ratings assigned an overwhelming 82 percent of the time, which clearly shows that our ratings are strongly representative of their opinions and expectations."
The institute this year made a special note to games featuring graphic scenes of cannibalism, such as "F.E.A.R." and "Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse," which are among the 12 "games to avoid" listed Tuesday by the institute.
"It's something we've never seen before," said Walsh, warning that today's games are "more extreme" and more easily available to underage kids than ever before.
In "Stubbs the Zombie," the lead character eats the brains of humans as blood splatters across the screen.
"It's just the worst kind of message to kids," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who joined institute officials at a press conference announcing the group's 10th annual video game report card. "They can be dangerous to your children's health."
Halpin defended such games, saying they are rated M, not intended for children under 17.
"It's not appropriate for kids and it is clearly labeled that way," said Halpin. "There are R-rated movies and DVDs."
The institute showed video clips that included gang warfare against police in "The Warriors" and a rogue police officer gunning down victims in "True Crime: New York City."
"Blitz: The League" has scenes of football players hiring prostitutes and engaging in drug deals, Walsh noted. "Doom 3," "Resident Evil 4" and "Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories" also made the list.
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