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Even E-rated Video Games May Not Be Suitable for Kids

A new study shows that despite the fact that video games rated "E" are supposed to be appropriate for "everyone" and suitable for players ages 6 and older, they contain an inappropriate amount of violence.

The study, published in the August 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, identified 672 E-rated video games currently available for home console use, sorted them by genre, and then sampled 55 of them for assessment. The study found that two-thirds (64%) of them involved intentional violence and that injuring or killing characters was rewarded or required for advancement in 60% of the games. The study also found that although there was a high correlation between games with a "violence content" descriptor and actual violence in the games, 14 of 32 games without violence descriptors contained acts of violence anyway.

Public concern about the amount of violence in video games led to the 1994 creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and its rating system. In their study, the authors write, "The definition for the E rating states that the game `may contain minimal violence,' yet our experience shows that many E-games contain a significant amount of violence and demonstrates ambiguity in what constitutes `minimal violence.'" They add, "an E rating does not automatically signify a level of violence acceptable for very young players. Physicians and parents should understand that popular E-rated video games may be a source of exposure to violence for children that rewards them for violent actions."

The author of the study, Kimberly Thompson, an assistant professor of risk analysis and decision science at the Harvard University School of Public Health, spoke with the Early Show about the findings.

Interview with study author

Were you surprised by the results of this study?

We were surprised that there was a significant amount of violence in these games considering that they were rated E and said that they contained a minimal level of violence.

How does the game rating system work?

Games are rated by the ESRB, which assigns them one of the following age-based categories:

  • EC for Early Childhood (3 and older).
  • E for Everyone (6 and up).
  • T for Teen (13 and up).
  • M for Mature (17 and up).
  • AO for Adults Only (18 and up).
  • RP for Rating Pending (for use when advertising before sale).

Since 1994, all games have had to receive a rating before they go on the market. (Some games prior to 1994 now have ratings too but not all.) The game manufacturers do this voluntarily much like the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) do for movies. The ESRB also assigns content descriptors, which are intended to tell people about the content of the games. These are things like "animated violence," "comic mischief" (slapstick), "crude language," or "use of tobacco and alcohol" etc. . . . The rating goes on the front of th box and the content descriptors are on the back of the box. If they aren't on the back then people can get them from the ESRB's Web site.

An "E" rating for a video game is the equivalent of a "G" rating for a movie. It is approved for "Everyone" ages 6 and over.

Why did you decide to look into this?

I'd been looking at how the media influences our perceptions of risk. I had done work before about the violent content of G-rated movies, and I realized that no one had quantitatively looked at their equivalent in video games. There has been a lot of concern in recent years about the effect of video games on violent behavior due to the recent concerns over school shootings. Studies had been done before looking at video games but none that looked at video games within one rating. This is also the first study that quantified the amount of violence in these games--that counted each act of violence within a particular game.

What games did you look at?

Thre were 672 E-rated video games out there (as opposed to only 81 G-rated animated movies ever released to the theatres). Most of the games were from the late 90s. That includes all video games available for sale or rental for home video play until April 1, 2001. We characterized the games according to genre and content. "Genre" is the mode and character of the game--"shooting" (you are looking over the barrel of a gun) "adventure" (you are trying to solve a puzzle; it's story driven as opposed to action) "role play" (you become a character), "action" (jumping and running), "sports," or "racing." Of course these categories overlap a lot. Of these genres, "action" and "sports" are the most popular, followed by "racing" and "adventure." Most sports games automatically get an E rating except for boxing and martial arts fighting.

We selected 55 games out of these to study. We took a cross section of genres, content descriptions, and play systems. There are four "play systems" (video game consoles)--Sony PlayStation, Sony PlayStation 2, Sega Dreamcast, and Nintendo 64. We took a cross section of these play systems as well. Half of the games we studied (28 of 55) were among the top 25 best-selling games in the US (a monthly list that ranks games by units sold regardless of rating).

How did you conduct the study?

All video games were played by a Harvard undergrad college student who had considerable video game-playing experience. He had to either play until he got to the end of the game or for 90 minutes, whichever came first. We recorded his playing directly into the VCR and then my co-author Kevin Haninger watched the tapes and coded each incident according to a sheet we developed. We were looking for acts of violence and whether or not the character was rewarded for the use of violence or whether the game required violent action for advancement. He looked for types of weapons used and whether the player could select weapons and any message about noviolence. We also looked for depiction of tobacco, alcohol, or sexual content.

What did your study find?

More than half of the games we looked at included violence against a character and they rewarded the player for injuring characters. We found that the content descriptors on the game boxes were helpful because the games actually contained what they said. The games labeled for violence contained more violence than those that didn't get labeled with violent content descriptors. However, the absence of a content descriptor for violence does not mean that the game is violence-free. We found that almost half of the games that we played that didn't have a violence descriptor still had violent content and involved violent play. Not surprisingly, the shooting games had the highest number of deaths per minute. But of the 55 games sampled, 27 (49%) depicted deaths from violence.

Which games were the worst offenders?

A game called Nuclear Strike 64, which is played on Nintendo 64. It is a game in which you operate an attack helicopter and you actually shoot and kill people on the ground and you hear them scream. And actually there is another T-rated (for teens) version of the game available for Sony PlayStation as well. This took us by surprise because it can be very confusing for parents who see same game get one rating on one system and another rating on another system. So one of our study's recommendations was that the ESRB not assign different ratings for essentially the same game on different systems.

What recommendations did you make to the ESRB?

Two things: one, that they not assign different ratings for essentially the same game on different systems. Secondly, that the ESRB should actually play the finished games in question before rating them instead of just relying on the excerpts provided by the manufacturer when deciding on a rating, which is how it is currently done. The way it is currently done is, three inependent raters look at the game excerpts and review a questionnaire submitted by the manufacturers. I think a lot of people will be very surprised to learn that the people rating the games don't even play the games! Also, there is a lot of inconsistency within the current system, for example one game will get a "mild violence" descriptor while another game will get a "violence" descriptor, but from playing the games you can't figure out why one got one rating and the other got another rating. Also, sometimes the company will change the name of a game after its rated so the box and the ESRB Web site will have different names, so it is confusing for consumers. We also think it would be helpful to have the ESRB label the games by genre as well.

Which were the best games (had the least violence)?

The sports games in general had very little violence. This is because we defined "violence" as intentional acts of violence committed for the purpose of injuring another characte. So the body checking in a sports game would not be considered violence--only unnecessary excessive force would count. Most of the sports games are baseball, golf, skating and fishing--games that are hard to make violent. Also, the casino games (like Caesars Palace 2000) and puzzle games were not violent.

What advice do you have for parents?

It's very important not to let video games come into their home under the radar. Parents need to pay attention to what they are buying and what their kids are bringing home. Just because it is entertainment doesn't mean that it won't teach your kid the wrong thing or influence the way they see things. An E rating is not a substitute for parental guidance.
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