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Study Finds Teen-Rated Video Games Include ‘Unexpected' Content

18 Feb, 2004 By: Holly J. Wagner

Popular teen-rated video games “may be a source of exposure to a wide range of unexpected content” like violence, substance abuse and sexual behavior that is not reflected in Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings, a team of Harvard University researchers has concluded.

In reviewing 81 games, the researchers found 48 percent did not correctly identify that the game contained potentially inappropriate content.

“We identified 51 observations of content that could warrant a content descriptor in 39 games in which the ESRB had not assigned a content descriptor,” researchers Kevin Haninger and Kimberly Thompson wrote in the Feb. 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Games with a ‘T' (teen) rating from ESRB are deemed acceptable for youngsters 13 years and older. The rating system also identifies qualities like violence or suggestive themes on some games.

The researchers reviewed labels on 396 ‘T'-rated games available by April 2001, then played a random sample of 81 games for an hour each. They then measured depictions of violence, blood, sexual themes, gambling and alcohol, tobacco and other drugs; whether injuring or killing characters is rewarded or is required to advance in the game; characterization of gender associated with sexual themes; and use of profanity in dialogue, lyrics or gestures in the 81 games.

“In the random sample of 81 games we played, we found that 79 (98 percent) involved intentional violence for an average of 36 percent of gameplay, 73 (90 percent) rewarded or required the player to injure characters, 56 (69 percent) rewarded or required the player to kill, 34 (42 percent) depicted blood, 22 (27 percent) depicted sexual themes, 22 (27 percent) contained profanity, 12 (15 percent) depicted substances and one (1 percent) involved gambling,” the researchers wrote. “Our observations of 81 games match the ESRB content descriptors for violence in 77 games (95 percent), for blood in 22 (27 percent), for sexual themes in 16 (20 percent), for profanity in 14 (17 percent) and for substances in one (1 percent). Games were significantly more likely to depict females partially nude or engaged in sexual behaviors than males.”

They also found the ESRB assigned seven content descriptors for seven games (9 percent) in which they did not observe the content indicated within the first hour of gameplay.

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