The video gaming industry has been growing in popularity in recent years, expanding its demographic from the pre-teen and early teenage set in the late 1980s and early 1990s to late teens into middle age.
According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 65 percent of gamers are over 18 years of age, and the average age for purchasers of video games is 37 years old. Since the video game market contains such a diverse fanbase, a system is used to rate the video games by content, much like system used by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to rate movies. This system established by the ESA is called the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), and has been in use since 1994. The ratings that can be given to a game submitted to the ESRB are as follows:
- EC – (Early Childhood) – These are games considered to be suitable for children ages three and older.
- E (Everyone) - Games with this rating are suitable for children over the age of six.
- E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) - These games are suitable for children over the age of ten.
- T (Teen) – Games rated T are suitable for teenagers (ages 13 and older).
- M (Mature) – Games with a Mature rating are suitable for gamers ages 17 and older.
- AO (Adults Only) – These games are only suitable for gamers over the 18 years of age.
Note the similarity between the ESRB ratings and the MPAA ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17). Both have ratings typically used for children, teenagers, and adults, though the ESRB goes a bit more in-depth with its younger age group ratings, having separate ratings for children at ages three, six, and ten.
How are video game ratings chosen? According to the ESRB website, the ratings are determined by at least three anonymous individuals of various ages and backgrounds, with no affiliations to the video game and computer industry. Video game publishers submit a questionnaire along with video footage of the most extreme content accessible in the game, which the raters review independently. When the raters reach a consensus regarding the recommended rating, the ESRB provides the publisher with a certificate officially rating the game. Criteria on which the game is rated can include sexual content, violence, language, and use of drugs or alcohol; among other things.
Recently, video games have been putting an increasing emphasis on adult themes, such as sex and drugs. The ESRB has taken this into account with its content descriptors, along with its M and AO ratings. Despite this, many opponents of the video game industry have publicly criticized the ESRB and the industry, stating that games with adult themes are marketed toward young children. The most vocal of these opponents in recent times is Jack Thompson, a Floridian medical malpractice attorney. He has in the past made claims that violent video games cause children to commit violent acts, such as school shootings and rapes, and that the video games are used as training aids – Thompson calls them “murder simulators”.
According to Jack Thompson’s website, “[s]cores of incidents of violence in our schools have been directly linked to the perpetrators' play of violent virtual reality video ‘games’.” In public appearances and online correspondences, he has made allegations linking video games with the violent behavior of Lee Boyd Malvo (the Beltway Sniper), Charles McCoy, Jr. (the Columbus, Ohio, sniper), and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (the Columbine school shooters). “The recent Red Lake, Minnesota school killer Jeffrey Weiss trained to kill on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City”. He also claims that the United States military uses video games to desensitize soldiers to killing. As of yet, no branches of the US military use video games for such a purpose, though a freely distributed first-person shooter-style game called America’s Army is often used as a recruitment device.
In 2004, the ESRB assigned ratings to 1,036 games, of which 54% were rated E, 33% were rated T, 12% were rated M, less than 1% each were rated EC and AO. To date, only 19 games have received the Adults Only rating, one of which is the widely publicized Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was reclassified after the discovery of the “Hot Coffee mini-game” modification that allowed players to access incomplete game code to engage in simulated sex acts, including fellatio and simulated intercourse. The mini-game “cannot be accessed without entering a long string of cheat codes, and takes several hours of effort to access,” but the game still received quite a bit of negative attention. Most of the negative media coverage was brought on by Jack Thompson and Senator Hilary Clinton (D-NY); so much so that the ESRB decided to reclassify the game (to AO) to avoid more media attacks. A second version of the game has been released with the offending code completely removed, once again under the rating of M.
Some retail markets, such as Wal-Mart, have policies regarding the sale of M-rated games to minors. Since the games are rated for gamers over the age of 17, certain stores will only sell games with an M brand to consumers over the age of 17. However, these policies are not in place in every store across America, so regulation is somewhat of a tricky issue. Since not every retailer has an age restriction on the consumers of video games, it can be difficult to keep adult-themed games out of the hands of children, who should not be playing games with such ratings as assigned by the ESRB. This can be equated to allowing a child to walk into a movie rental store and rent several R-rated movies without being asked for identification. Some parents would not mind that their children are being exposed to language, sex, and violence, while other parents are outraged that such games are made (these same parents are often found criticizing movies with excessive violence or sex).
Since moral and ethical values vary from family to family, regulating what should or should not be produced in video games is extremely difficult. Some families opt to allow their children exposure to more “adult” themes, under the justification that “they’ll see it anyway.” Other families prefer to stick to the rating system to the letter, and will not allow a child to play an M-rated game (or see an R-rated movie) until the day of the child’s seventeenth birthday. To this end, the ESRB is not a perfect system. There is no way to definitively enforce the ratings suggested on the covers of the video games. This potential shortcoming is also addressed on the ESRB website, where the Board urges parents to learn about the games their children play. They offer several suggestions for ways to do this, such as parents playing games with their children, talking to other parents and older children about the appropriateness of various video games, and reading reviews of the games from other sources, such as gaming magazines and websites. The ESRB submits that the rating system should not be used as the sole basis for choosing a game for a child. “Rather, parents should use the ESRB ratings in conjunction with their own tastes and standards and their individual knowledge about what's best for their kids.”
Today’s video games are becoming more and more realistic; with the advent of new technology comes the ability to make more life-like characters and settings – indeed, some games are even actually set in rendered versions of real places. As the games begin to more accurately depict real people, with real reactions to real stimuli, the ratings must become more and more strict. Rarely is a character merely shrunk to half his size when struck by an enemy – now characters bleed, stagger, and fall over when hit. Cartoon violence is on the decline as video games begin to look increasingly like movies and television shows. Some feel this represents a decline in morality amongst gamers and game publishers alike. Others feel this is simply a more effective strategy for marketing to demographics more able to spend money – the “older crowd.”
Video games, once considered to be a way to keep young children occupied and out of their parents’ way, are quickly becoming a more acceptable pastime for an older crowd. It is because of this that video games are becoming more mature in their nature. As the demographic shifts upward, publishers are forced to market to an older crowd in order to turn a profit. The most efficient way of doing this is, of course, to produce games which will maintain the interest of the twenty-somethings playing the games, and these games will likely include things like violence, language, and sex, which are all popular motifs found in movies. Though there is no concrete evidence to suggest that video games are responsible for increasing the frequency and intensity of acts of violence by teenagers, there will always be opponents of the industry, just as there are opponents of violence in movies and song lyrics. Similarly, the proponents of the video game industry will always argue that their entertainment is harmless, as long as parents are handling it responsibly.
Sources: StopKill.com, theesa.com, ESRB.org, and various Wikipedia articles