April 4th, 2006

First Amendment Expert Exercises His Right to Bash Harvard Study

The dust-up over yesterday's controversial Harvard study on video game ratings continues as a noted First Amendment lawyer weighs in.

Washington, D.C.-based John Mitchell, who does legal work for video game industry clients, took keyboard in hand after reading the Harvard research report prepared by Associate Professor Kim Thompson and her team.

Writing in his blog, CopyOwner, Mitchell pulled no punches, beginning with his headline, which reads, "Harvard study jettisons original ideas, favors booing those who have them."

Mitchell went on to say, "Yes, 81% of the games rated 'M' (for 'mature,' as in 'hey folks, this is something you may not want your kids to play with before you've taken a closer look'), had content that was not mentioned in the rating description."

"(Harvard researchers) accomplished this feat by hiring one 'gamer' to play the games for an hour. No, they did not consider how kids - much less 'mature' audiences for which the games are intended - play the games. They faked it. And then they chastise those that took the trouble of rating the game and warned parents to be alert."

"It's a good thing they didn't decide to study what percentage of beers have more alcohol than is stated on the label - and hired a student to go bar-hopping to collect the research. Sure, at the end of the day (or after the hangover the next morning), they might be able to publish how many beers failed to state or under-stated the alcohol content, and warn parents that they should be on the lookout when their kids go drinking, because you can't be sure whether a beer stating 4.5% actually contained 4.6% alcohol."
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Harvard Researcher Discusses Study with GP Readers...

If GP knew company was dropping by, we would have dusted the furniture...

Seriously, we noticed that Kevin Haninger, a member of Kim Thompson's HSPH research team and co-author of the just-released rating descriptors study, visited GamePolitics last night to offer his views on the rapidly-developing controversy.

While GP readers didn't always agree with Kevin, they certainly appreciated his willingness to interact. Thanks for the visit, Kevin!

...and Harvard Researchers Fire Back at the ESRB

There's nothing like a good brawl to jack up the old hit count at GamePolitics, and today we have a doozy. As expected, the ESRB reacted strongly to yesterday's Harvard study which criticized how the ratings board applies content descriptors to M-rated games.

Now Associate Professor Kimberly Thompson (left) of the Kids Risk Project at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), lead author of the study, fires back at the ESRB in an e-mail received by GamePolitics late Monday night:

"... we believe the (ESRB's) comments include mischaracterizations of our study and statements. We fully agree with the ESRB that our study 'confirms what most parents and gamers already know - that games rated M... have content that is not suitable for younger players.'...

"We based our definitions of game content on the definitions of the ESRB content descriptors found on the ESRB website. We did not attempt to establish an independent standard for evaluating game content. While we would welcome more information about the ESRB standards for assigning content descriptors and we have repeatedly called for greater clarity and transparency in the ESRB ratings, the ESRB has previously told us and the news media that they have no written criteria for assigning ratings beyond what is published on their website."

"What is apparent to us after playing and coding the games is that the ESRB ratings lack consistency. Our studies document the inconsistencies that we have observed. The ESRB appears to interpret our findings as resulting from 'flaws' in our methods without commenting on the actual observations or providing any scientific justification for their claim of 'flaws.' The ESRB relies on unavailable self-funded market research to assert that parents agree with its ratings, but there is no opportunity for us or any researchers to evaluate what content the ESRB-funded survey provides to participants to review. Moreover, our study assesses the accuracy of the content descriptors, not the age-based ratings."
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ESRB Responds to Harvard Study Which Claims Ratings Deficiencies

Yesterday's release of a Harvard study which criticized the ESRB for inconsistent application of M-rated game content descriptors did not sit well with the rating board. ESRB president Patricia Vance was quick to respond. Here's what Ms. Vance had to say:

"The study released today by Harvard's School of Public Health... simply confirms what most parents and gamers already know - that games rated M... have content that is not suitable for younger players.

"The study reports that 97% of games containing violence are labeled by ESRB with a content descriptor that indicates the game contains such content; approximately the same level of accuracy was found for the presence of blood in a game. Considering these positive results, which point strongly to an effective and accurate ESRB rating system, one is left to wonder why the authors chose to use such a disingenuous headline for their press release.
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GP: The press release headline Vance is referring to reads: "Study Finds M-Rated Video Games Contain Violence, Sexual Themes, Substances, and Profanity Not Labeled on Game Boxes; Industry Board Issues Ratings Without Playing Games"
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