Summary: JCal does a little digging and harassment to get more of the story behind the ESRB ratings controversy.
The Harvard study got us thinking on how another large visual entertainment industry puts content descriptions on their games, the movie and TV industry when they release products on DVD. Since starting in 1997, the DVD has shot up to become in only a few years to be the de facto way to release movie and TV shows, supplanting the VHS tape. Over 100 million DVD players have been sold since the DVD format launched and in 2005 sales of DVDs topped $15.7 billion, more than the $11.5 billion total sales of video and PC games for the same year and far more than the $8.8 billion movies took in at the box office in 2005. In short the DVD industry is massive. Yet in an informal survey we conducted earlier this week we found that in terms of ratings and content descriptions, the DVD industry doesn't do nearly as much as the ESRB when putting ratings or content descriptions on their boxes.
First, a little history lesson. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is made up of the seven largest motion picture studios in America and among other things is in charge of putting ratings on movies when they are sent out in theaters. The ratings system was put in place in 1968 and with a few changes over the years has stayed in place. With only a few exceptions over the years nearly every movie released in theaters in the US goes through the MPAA ratings system. The system has come under criticism by some in the movie industry, particularly movie directors who are sometimes forced to cut out content in order to receive a particular rating. However, the current ratings system is now generally a fact of life and there is little to no critical comments from lawmakers about the MPAA ratings system. The television ratings are a more recent development by the TV industry; they were put in place in 1997. Most of you have doubtless seen those big boxes at the start of every show with the rating and some content description letters. Those are part of the TV Parental Guidelines system and not only are they shown visually they are also supposed to work with the "V-chip" that are put inside most modern TV sets. Finally the ESRB ratings system was established in 1994 by the video and PC game industry after it came under attack by the US Congress for not labeling games with adult content.
That is certainly not the case when we looked at the DVDs on display at those same stores. As most of you may know, movies that are released to DVD frequently come out in rated and also in "unrated" versions with extra material that was not in the original theatrical release - and there were plenty of those titles available in the three stores we surveyed. Hostel, The Ring Two, Basic Instinct, The Grudge, Dodgeball, White Chicks, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Day of the Dead and Doom were just some of the titles that were released in unrated versions with no other content descriptions. Other movies, such as the recent budget title Demon Hunter that contain extreme violence and some nudity, are released directly to DVD with no rating or content descriptions. DVDs have caught on with TV shows as well with whole seasons now being released for a number of past and current shows. However, the majority of DVD TV show collections on sale at the stores we surveyed were unrated.
There are some exceptions; we found that the Alias and Desperate Housewives DVD collections in those stores we surveys do have the original TV rating they received on the back of the box. Queer as Folk, the Showtime gay themed series, has a "May Contain Some Adult Material" content description on the back of the box. DVD collections of MTV shows like Jackass and Comedy Central shows like South Park have a warning in the back of their boxes clearly stating that the DVD contain mature and adult content. However, TV shows that have at least some degree of adult content such as The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Sex and The City, The OC, 24, The L Word, Over There and NYPD Blue have no rating or content descriptions at all in their DVD collections. Even if a movie or TV show had a rating, they were always on the back and in very small text compared to the large ESRB boxes found on video and PC games. Finally there was no display for the MPAA or TV Parental Guidelines in any of the stores, compared to the Target and Best Buy ESRB displays. In short, when you buy a DVD the chances are good that you are picking up a product that has not gone through a ratings system and indeed will be promoted as being unrated.
One person who has been highly critical of the ESRB system is Leland Yee, the California Assemblyman who authored the bill that was signed into law last fall in that state that would ban the sales of certain games with violent content to minors (the law is currently not being enforced pending the conclusion of a court case started by the video/PC game industry). When the study of content descriptions in M-rated games was issued by Harvard earlier this month, Yee was quick to send out a press release stating, "This is yet another piece of evidence showing that the current rating system just doesn’t work. I have urged the industry on numerous occasions to appropriately rate and disclose the content of M-rated video games. Yet, time and time again we have seen that parents can’t trust the ratings; now this study shows they can’t trust the content descriptors either.”
FiringSquad sent over the results of our informal survey of video and PC game ratings on boxes and comparing them to the ratings (or lack thereof) on DVD boxes for movies and TV shows. His press secretary sent over an email response from Yee:
The ESRB has a history of failing our parents. The FTC has done numerous studies showing that 13-16 olds can easily purchase M-rated video games at retailers. Yet, those same children have a far more difficult time purchasing R-rated movies. The ESRB rating board fails to view the entire contents of game before giving it an appropriate rating, and thus incidents like Hot Coffee happen. They have never rated a game AO for violent content despite their own rating descriptor of AO for "graphic depictions of violence". Apparently, Manhunt, GTA, Postal, etc. do not include "graphic depictions of violence".
It seems clear that there is an undeserved double standard when it comes to video game ratings as opposed to those for other forms of media like television or film. The simple fact, however, is that parents deserve to be informed of what's in the products they bring home to their families, regardless of the medium. That's exactly why ESRB ratings are prominently displayed on virtually every computer and video game sold in North America, giving parents useful and easily understood information about what type of content they may expect to encounter in a game. The support that the ESRB ratings have received from publishers and retailers has been overwhelming, and we're extremely proud of the service we provide to consumers.
Finally we heard from the person who got us thinking about doing our survey in the first place in Harvard professor Kim Thompson. FiringSquad communicated with Thompson via email and phone. Thompson told us that she felt that her study of content descriptions of M-rated games was different than our informal survey comparing ratings of games to DVD products. Nevertheless, she did tell us that in a future study they might take a look into how the movie and TV studios go about rating DVD releases. Here is some of her comments about our surveys:
I commend you on your informal survey, which demonstrates the importance of improving all of the media rating systems and their use in the marketplace, and I hope that it further strengthens the case for parents to demand a single media rating system that would provide high-quality, consistent, and transparent information for all media products. Our study showed that the ESRB is rating the violence and blood in M-rated games, but that the ESRB is missing content in 81% of M-rated games that could be of concern to parents. Our prior study in T-rated games found content not indicated by the content descriptors in 48% of the games we played, and based on our repeated observations of inconsistently labeled content, we believe that the ESRB should play the games before assigning its ratings and content descriptors.
The other big question, and the one raised by Professor Thompson’s survey is, “Can the ESRB provide more info about the content of games when they are rated by the board?” We have to say that the answer to that is also, “Yes”. While we believe the ESRB is doing a much better job in rating their product than the movie and TV industry does in rating their DVD product, everything can stand some improvement. We hope that the ESRB will use Professor Thompson’s study not as an attack on their board (as Assemblyman Yee has decided to do) but as one way to improve how games are rated in the future. As we mentioned in our previous interview with Thompson, she stated that she much prefer the video and PC game industry police itself rather than hand that responsibility to, say, the government, which is what Yee would like to see happen in California.
In the meantime, we hope that when politicians talk about how games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Postal 2 and 25 to Life should be kept away from kids because of their content we also hope that they give equal consideration to clearly mature themed DVDs that, unlike all M rated games, sometimes don’t have ratings at all.
|© Copyright 2003 FS Media, Inc.|