Blogger’s Note: This piece was all but ready to go up on Thursday, before a busted ‘net connection and weekend plans pushed it back a bit. It’s not quite as timely now, but I hope you’ll still enjoy it. Also, let me know what you think of the new style I’m trying in this piece.
Gamers eager to lessen the attention on the games industy’s practice of selling violent content to children received a jarring one-two punch of media coverage last Thursday with a New York Times piece on the ineffective nature of game ratings and the breaking news of a proposed Illinois ban of violent game sales to minors.
First, the New York Times piece, which is very effective in showing how ratings aren’t. Unlike many other articles on this problem, though, it doesn’t start by placing blame on game makers or retailers, but by addressing parental responsibility.
“To some extent, the problem lies with the fact that few parents sit and play video games with their children. ‘Parents do see the movies and they do watch television,’ said David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a nonprofit research and educational organization in Minneapolis. ‘But for the most part, they don’t play video games.’
That doesn’t mean the Times article leaves the industry blameless. Much of the article is an informative back-and-forth on the two sides of the issue.
The content descriptors are often so brief as to be cryptic. A word like “lyrics,” for example, does not convey much helpful information. Nor does the descriptor “language.”
[The ESRB’s] Ms. Vance disagreed. “We strive to hit the right balance between being succinct and descriptive,” she said. “Consumers don’t want to be overwhelmed with too much information.”
The article includes some evidence of lax consumer information efforts at retail in the Palo Alto area, and there’s an implication (perhaps unfair, for sure unsubstantiated in the article) that the problem is similar elsewhere in the country.
“At the Best Buy store where Ms. Pearson was shopping, the rating on the front of a number of games was covered by the price sticker. At another Best Buy in the Bay Area, in East Palo Alto, a display that explained the ratings was removed to make way for holiday merchandise, an employee said.”
The funniest part of the article, though, has to be the following exchange about the rating and content descriptors on NBA Ballers:
“The game is rated E, with no content descriptors, yet Mr. Haninger said it shows young women in provocative clothing, as well as Shaquille O’Neal with an unlit cigar in his hand. The game allows players to dribble a ball off another character’s face.
“Ms. Vance … said her group stood behind its rating of NBA Ballers. ‘The fact that a character may be holding a cigar, cigarette or pipe as a prop does not warrant on its own a more restrictive rating,’ she said. ‘Particularly if it is not lit.'”
Unlit cigars and face-dribbling are gray areas now?
In making his case for a ban of violent video game sales for minors in Illinois, governor Rod Blagojevich was quite direct in citing the same ineffective rating system featured in the Times:
“Unlike the motion picture industry, the video game industry has not developed an effective self-regulation system that keeps adult material out of the hands of minors. [emphasis added]”
In fact, the <A HREF="
http://www.illinois.gov/PressReleases/ShowPressRelease.cfm?SubjectID=3&RecNum=3586″>governor’s press release on the issue, may be the most concise and informative argument for the anti-violence side of the issue that I’ve recently seen. Beyond the sound bites quoted in major media outlets, the governor’s release includes a treasure-trove of information bolstering the state’s case.
A 2001 study from Iowa State University found that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviors. A 2001 Stanford University study found that when the amount of time third and fourth graders spent watching television and playing video games is reduced to less than seven hours a week, their verbal aggression decreased by 50 percent and physical aggression decreased by 40 percent. Another study, completed in 2003 by four experts, including Douglas Gentile from the National Institute on Media and the Family, concluded that adolescents who expose themselves to greater amounts of video game violence were more hostile, reported getting into arguments with teachers more frequently, were more likely to be involved in physical fights, and performed more poorly in school.
The Chicago Tribune takes the most interesting angle of any mainstream media outlet I saw, countering the ineffective ratings argument with an ineffective potential ban argument:
“Even if Illinois makes it a crime to sell graphic video games to minors, 16-year-old Rick Baki doesn’t plan to stop playing favorites like the much-maligned ‘Grand Theft Auto’ series.
“Baki says he could always get an older sibling or, with some pleading, his mom to buy the games, which put players in the mind of a carjacker on a violent crime spree. If that didn’t work, he’d find similar games online.
‘I think it’s stupid to prohibit them,” Baki said as he left Whitney Young High School in Chicago on Thursday. “Who’s Governor Rod to say I can’t buy the games I want to?'”
The major wire services, including AP, Reuters and UPI, all picked up on the story, which means a whole ton of mainstream outlets picked up the story too without having to lift a finger. The AP and Reuters cover all the bases in their standard, nondescript way. UPI weighs in with a laughably short breaking-news-style piece that barely addresses one side of the issue, but does include a great description of Grand Theft Auto.
“Blagojevich singled out the popular ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ video game that encourages players to avenge the murder of the hero’s mother and boost standing in his gang by gunning down cops, breaking into houses, stealing cars at gunpoint and having sex with prostitutes.”
The UPI article was also one of the few to note the influence of the recent JFK: Reloaded simulation on the proposed ban, despite the fact that the reasoning appeared in the governor’s press release.
But, motivation initially came from the controversial British video game, “JFK Reloaded,” which lets players take on the role of presidential assassin.
“I was outraged,” Blagojevich said.
Elsewhere in the mediascape, the L.A. Times story somehow meanders into a comparison between video game and movie industries, even mentioning gaming’s newest atrocious awards show.
The industry even has its own awards show. Held in Santa Monica on Tuesday, the second annual Video Game Awards showered kudos on “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” The title, the latest in a controversial series set amid a background of crime, won game of the year and best male performer for actor Samuel L. Jackson, who did the voice-over for one of its characters.
NPR’s piece is interesting if only to hear the voices of Governor Blagojevich and some concerned parents, instead of just reading them in our minds-ear.
Specialist coverage is typified by this GameSpot piece which leads off a recap of the same facts in every other article with some snarky analysis.
It’s as if the Governor of Illinois never heard of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
It seems clear to me that he hass heard of it, and he’s not impressed.
All in all the coverage of the proposal was appropriate and give nthe correct context. The story will likely go quiet now until the next bit of progress on the ban — a vote before the legislature, perhaps. So those wanting to keep the spotlight off video game often-violent nature can rest easy again… for the time being.