April 3rd, 2006

Life Imitating Game Art Lands Ohio Teens in Hot Water

Five teenagers facing criminal charges. Plans downloaded from the Internet. The HazMat team and Bomb Squad called in. An entire community alarmed, all because some crazy kids were imitating behavior learned in a video game.

The doom-and-gloom scenario may sound familiar, but the game being blamed certainly won't - Super Mario Brothers for the hoary, old NES.

The Akron Beacon-Journal reports that five girls, using downloaded instructions, constructed those familiar gold paper wrapped boxes sporting a "?" that are featured in every Mario game. They built 17 of the boxes, and stacked them up beside a church, a courthouse, a bakery, a street corner, the library, their high school and a private residence.

The girls, aged 16 & 17, said they were attempting to play a real-life version of Super Mario Bros. The packages alarmed residents, who called in the bomb squad to investigate. The Ravenna Police Department said they will be looking into possible criminal charges as a result.

A more detailed report in the Record-Courier included comments from the local police chief, who said, "The girls found an Internet site called Mario Question Blocks which told you step by step how the game is played, along with instructions on wrapping the packages, just to see what kind of response you get," McCoy said. "This game is evidently being played all over the country."

The chief may be right, based on the number of results for a Google search on "Mario Question Blocks." The site which is apparently behind the gold box campaign is here.

CM: The silliest part? The Journal reported this on April 1st. And they weren't joking...

-Reporting from Saskatchewan, GP North American Correspondent Colin "Jabrwock" McInnes

GP: ...and a shout-out to numerous readers alerting us to this story, including Dan Seif, AR and Justin Graham.

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."
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Michigan Video Game Law Ruled Unconstititional

The battle is over in Michigan.

The video game industry registered another big court victory today as a federal judge ruled Michigan's video game law unconstitutional and reaffirmed that "video games are a form of creative expression that are constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. They contain original artwork, graphics, music, storylines, and characters similar to movies and television shows, both of which are considered protected free speech."

As reported by GamePolitics last November, Judge George Caram Steeh had previously issued a temporary injunction blocking the law from taking effect. At a March 22nd hearing, final arguments were presented. Judge Steeh's decision was provided to lawyers for both sides on Friday. Industry reaction was swift.

"Judge Steeh's ruling represents a sweeping rejection of the state's claims regarding the harmful effects of violent video games and we will move immediately for reimbursement of the substantial legal fees incurred in this court fight which the state could have, and should have, never triggered," said ESA president Douglas Lowenstein.

Judge Steeh likewise dismissed Michigan's claim that the interactive nature of video games somehow limited their First Amendment protections.

"The interactive, or functional aspect, in video games can be said to enhance the expressive elements even more than other media by drawing the player closer to the characters and becoming more involved in the plot of the game than by simply watching a movie or television show," Judge Steeh wrote. "It would be impossible to separate the functional aspects of a video game from the expressive, inasmuch as they are so closely intertwined and dependent on each other in creating the virtual experience."

Nor was the jurist kind to research submitted to support the law.
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