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Violent-Game Controversy Flares Up

17 Dec, 2004 By: John Gaudiosi

More ‘Mature'-rated games are garnering huge sales numbers and massive media coverage, with the average age of a gamer at 30, according to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA). With more ‘M'-rated game hits comes more controversy surrounding the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) voluntary game ratings system.

Members of Congress and parent, church and women's groups have warned parents to check ESRB ratings (both front and back) before making a purchase this holiday season and have also condemned specific games.

According to Billy Pidgeon, video game analyst for the Zelos Group, the percentage of ‘Mature'- and ‘Teen'-rated games aren't expected to increase significantly over last year's top 20 breakdown, with 54 percent rated ‘Everyone,' 30.5 percent rated ‘ Teen' and 11.9 percent rated ‘Mature.' In 2003, 70 percent of the top 20 console games and 90 percent of the top 20 computer games were rated ‘E' or ‘T,' according to the ESA.

“Yes, Halo 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas will likely be in the top 20, but The Sims 2 and Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 will probably make the list as well,” Pidgeon said. “Although games get more realistic year over year due to advances in graphics and artificial intelligence, I don't believe games are getting more violent overall. Nevertheless, the high percentage of ‘E'-rated games and retailers' cooperation in enforcing age-appropriate game purchases will do little to dissuade groups that believe that games are too violent.”

While there are plenty of ‘Everyone' and ‘Teen'-rated games to go around, many of this year's best-sellers, including Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, Halo 2, Half-Life 2 and Doom 3, are ‘Mature'-rated. And since kids want the hottest games, regardless of their rating, much ado is made this time of year to ensure that parents and casual gift givers know exactly what's inside that game they're giving to a loved one.

“Nearly 40 percent of all Americans plan on giving or receiving a computer or video game this holiday season, according to a poll conducted by KRC Research for the Entertainment Software Association,” said Senator Rick Santorum (R-N.C.). “I urge parents to be aware of the ESRB rating system and the guidance it can provide.”

“Shoppers need to make sure they understand what's in the games their kids will be playing, just like they know what movies they see and books they read,” said Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.).

In addition to the ESRB ratings, which are available online at www.esrb.com and in pamphlet form at retail and rental locations that sell games, the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA) has issued a carding policy for the rental or purchase of any ‘Mature'-rated game, which is in full effect this holiday season.

“Retailers have made significant investments in educating parents and their own staffs about the ratings system,” said Hal Halpin, president of the IEMA.

The KRC Research survey found that the majority of games will be purchased this holiday season by men (34 percent) and women (29 percent) — not children. Those children who are driven to a store to make a $50 video game purchase will be carded for ‘Teen'- and ‘Mature'-rated games.

“Previous studies show that parents are involved in the purchase or rental of games almost 90 percent of the time, that 92 percent of parents say they monitor the content of the titles their children play, and that more than three-quarters of parents plan to use the ratings when they shop for games this holiday season,” said Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB.

Nevertheless, a coalition of groups has emphasized the violent nature of some games and called for improvements in the ratings system. The groups created a list of the Top 10 Most Violent Games of this holiday season, and in a joint statement, also urged retailers to stop selling the inappropriate games directly to children and called on the industry to come up with an improved and more widely promoted game-rating system that parents can understand.

Critics of the list have noted that one of the games, Manhunt, was released October 2003 and, although violent, was not a big hit at retail for Rockstar Games. Another game, Eidos' Hitman: Blood Money, won't be out until 2005, critics noted. (Hitman: Contracts, which shipped in April 2004, is not on the list, even though it is available for sale this holiday.) Gunslinger Girl 2 made the list, even though it is only available in Japan and is not coming to the United States. Midway Games' Shadow Hearts: Covenant, a Japanese role-playing game, has a ‘Teen' rating, however, all of the other games on the list had a ‘Mature' rating.

“Video game retailers must commit to keeping video games with graphic violence or strong sexual themes out of the hands of children,” said Dr. Martha Burk, president, Center for Advancement of Public Policy and chair, National Council of Women's Organizations. “The best way to do this is to not sell the games. Corporate responsibility must mean more than meeting minimal rating standards, which presently serve the industry far more than they serve the consumer.”

The groups' claim that parents are confused by the ESRB ratings system goes against a recent study by Peter D. Hart Research, which showed 401 randomly selected parents around the country a compilation of video footage from 80 popular video games rated within the past 12 months. Respondents were asked to assign the ESRB rating they felt was most appropriate and then were told what rating the ESRB actually assigned the game. Parents were asked to describe the ESRB rating as “about right,” “too strict,” or “too lenient.” Parents said that the ratings were “about right” 83 percent of the time, and 5 percent of the time, said the ESRB rating had been “too strict.”

Seventy-seven percent of adults with children in their household plan to check the rating when purchasing computer or video games as holiday gifts this season, according to the KRC Research study. Poll results show that 81 percent of parents with children under the age of 12, and 71 percent of those with children between ages 12 and 17 will use a game's rating to guide their gift-giving decisions.

“Close to 85 percent of all games sold last year were rated either ‘E' for everyone or ‘T' for teen, so consumers should know that there's a game out there for anyone,” said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the ESA, the trade association representing U.S. computer and video game publishers.

Top 10 Most Violent Games of This Holiday Season

1 Doom 3 (Activision)
2 Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar Games)
3 Gunslinger Girls 2 (N/A in U.S.)
4 Half Life 2 (Vivendi Universal Games)
5 Halo 2 (Microsoft)
6 Hitman: Blood Money (releases in 2005) (Eidos)7 Manhunt (Rockstar Games)
8 Mortal Kombat: Deception (Midway Games)
9 Postal 2 (Running With Scissors)
10 Shadow Heart: Covenant (Midway)

Source: Coalition of parent, church and women's groups

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