Summary: We chat briefly with Harvard Associate Professor Kimberly Thompson in an article that looks at content descriptions for M-rated games and recommends changes to the ESRB's process to rate video and PC games.
The results of our study suggest that parents and physicians should pay careful attention to the actual content of any M-rated video game that their children might play, particularly since the M-rating indicates that the intended audience is for ages 17 years and older. Compared with our studies of T-rated video games, we found significantly more blood, severe injuries, and human deaths in M-rated games, although we also found a significantly smaller percentage of violent game play in M-rated video games. We believe that current discussions about restricting children's access to violent games may miss the reality that both T-rated and M-rated games contain significant amounts of violence.
Such strong words appeared in a study published by the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, a subsidiary of the highly reputable Journal of the American Medical Association. We investigate the claims further.
Dr. Thompson told FiringSquad that the 81 percent figure "...was a little higher than I expected." Surprisingly, the Kids Risk Project did a previous study on content descriptions in E and T rated games and Thompson told us that in terms of violence the T-rated games actually have more events that they would consider to be violent than M-rated game. She added, however, that the violent content in M-rated games was much stronger and more graphic than what is portrayed in T-rated games.
Associate Professor Thompson told us that their study was based on simply picking up M-rated games in the stores and having one person play through all of them. That unnamed person (who is a separate individual and not an actual author of the study) played through an hour of the game, while another person recorded what was seen in the game. "We look through every scene in the gameplay" Dr. Thompson told us, and then go through and check through what kind of content is featured in the game. In terms of violence, they rated the level of violence: mild, moderate or strong.
According to the results of the study nearly all M-rated games have violence or blood and have content descriptions with the ESRB rating on the box. However, 15 games that had profanity did not list profane language in the ESRB content description box. Sexual themes were present in 13 M-rated games but only 5 had content descriptions on the ESRB game box. Dr. Thompson made the point that even in the context of an M-rated title, content tends to vary widely. "There are some games that are a borderline M-rated title and there are some games that are close to the other direction (becoming an AO rated title)", she told FiringSquad.
One of the big recommendations that the study gives to the ESRB is for the ratings board to actually play the games before they are officially rated. Currently the ESRB uses info, screenshots and movies provided by the publisher to rate the games and sometimes those ratings are given out months before the game itself is released. In their response to the Harvard study, ESRB President Patricia Vance stated such an approach "is pleasant in theory and senseless in practice", saying that having three people play the over 1,000 games rated by the board each year, "would not only be staggeringly inefficient, but more importantly would increase the likelihood of the raters' not finding and considering all pertinent game content." Associate Professor Thompson disputes Vance's opinion, saying that even though their single player for their own study went through each M-rated game for an hour, "we are capturing 90 percent of the content in the game. It is different to play the game than it is to watch it." Dr. Thompson compared the ESRB not playing the games before rating them to the MPAA not watching movies before rating them.
So what is the solution? Again, Dr. Thompson said that its best for the video game industry to rate their own products and the Harvard study simply recommends ways the ESRB can change and improve their process. However, Dr. Thompson does feel that for parents, having separate ratings systems for video games, television and movies can become confusing. As a result she would like to see the three entertainment groups get together on a universal ratings system that can be used by parents without having to learn three separate systems.
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