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Harvard Study Cites Problems with ESRB Ratings

You win some, you lose some...

On the heels of the game industry's victory in Michigan today comes word of a just-released Harvard study which calls into question the reliability of the ESRB's video game content labeling system.

The study, led by Associate Professor Kimberly Thompson of the Kids Risk Project at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), found undocumented content in 81% of M (17 & older) games sampled. In other words, the researchers found behaviors which should have been listed among content descriptors on the game box but were not. The most common omission was that of "substance use."

A press release claims the research is "the first independent, quantitative study to characterize content in M-rated games related to violence, blood, sexual themes, substances, profanity, and gambling observed in game play."

"Parents and physicians need to recognize that M-rated video games popular with children and adolescents contain a wide range of often unlabeled content, exposing young people to messages that may negatively influence their perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors," said Thompson.

The study's authors, researchers at HSPH, include Karen Tepichin and Kevin Haninger as well as Thompson. In evaluating the ESRB system, the team looked at a random sample of 25% of all M-rated PS2, GameCube and Xbox titles released by April 1st, 2004. Games tested included hits like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Ninja Gaiden as well as forgettables such as BMX XXX and Run Like Hell. (for a look at the some of the data, click here).

Each game was played for one hour and the content observed was compared to the ESRB's descriptors. The researchers concluded that the ESRB "inconsistently assigned content descriptors to some games but not to others with the same content. Based on these observations along with recent limited evidence showing that many children and adolescents play M-rated games, the study authors suggest that parents and physicians should play an active role in discussing game content with kids."

Lead researcher Thompson commented, "It's time for the industry to provide complete, consistent, and clear information about what is really in games so that parents can make more informed decisions when selecting games for and with their children... even though the M-rating might imply restricted access to these games, the existing, limited evidence suggests that many children and adolescents are playing M-rated games."

While the Harvard researchers urge parents to check and use the ESRB ratings, they also believe the system needs to be improved. Among problems cited by the study: the ESRB does not mandate that publishers submit an entire finished game prior to assigning the rating and the content descriptors. Thus, the ESRB is not able to play the complete game before assigning a rating.

"Given the high prevalence of unlabeled content, we encourage the ESRB to make playing the games an integral part of the rating process," said Tepichin. Haninger emphasizes the need for "greater transparency and public accountability of the rating process," which the authors feel will boost consumer confidence in the reliability of the ESRB.

In making its case for accuracy in ratings, the study, submitted for publication last November, cites 2002 Federal Trade Commission data which showed that 69% of underage secret shoppers were able to purchase M-rated games. However, just last week the FTC released new data showing that number had dropped to 42%.

The study, which appears in the today's Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine Special Issue was published by the American Medical Association.

GP contacted the ESRB for comment but the ratings body is apparently reviewing the study before responding. We will publish their comment as it is received. In the meantime, the full study is available here.

Tags: content descriptors, esrb, harvard, karen tepichin, kevin haninger, kim thompson, ratings
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