Curbing Access to Mature-Rated Video Games

3

by Khurram Hussain (via eMail submission)

 

INTRODUCTION

The video game rating systems established in countries across the world currently try to maintain rules with the sale of inappropriate games, but many times, this is not enforced due to laws and legislation that federally allow the sale of entertainment software to anyone. However, advocating and supporting the regulation and ratings of video games towards minors will allow for parents and guardians to make better decisions that is right for their children. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was established in 1994 with 5 rating categories and 17 unique descriptions. Ever since then, 9 more descriptors and categories have been introduced as a way to improve the classifications of video games (ESRB, History). Even though ratings like this have been enforced in various parts of the world, it still seems that some children are often exposed to the higher-rated video games that are intended for mature audiences. The ESRB has suggested that its ratings are highly effective with its enforcement on advertising and distribution (ESRB, Enforcement); however, according to the Supreme Court judges and the First Amendment, the sale of violent and mature video games to minors cannot be restricted (Braven).

Example: One of the most violent and most popular games: Mortal Kombat

With the video game industry booming quite recently, it has been difficult for researchers to determine the best solution so far to limit the sale of inappropriate content to minors. Even more challenging is finding an answer that satisfies the diverse and expansive gaming community, while having a method for caregivers to better monitor their children’s use of media. So far, only a few solutions have been considered to be a viable system for parents to better monitor their children’s video game usage. The first of these is completely restricting the sale altogether of violent video games to any person under the age of 18. This solution was originated from the California government legislature which imposed a fine on any retailer that sold a mature rated game to minors under Assembly Bill No. 1179. Another solution is creating an offender list of stores that sell violent video games to minors, which was an idea thought of by Kevin W. Saunders, a professor of law at Michigan State University. Lastly, through studies and surveys, some researchers have suggested that shifting all the ratings system to be universally applied for every entertainment industry may also work to better understand video game ratings. Although these solutions will have some downfalls, it can still be beneficial to consider what each one can do in order to help protect the youth.

RESTRICTING VIDEO GAME SALES

Banning the sales of video games to minors seems like the most obvious solution to the problem. It would not be much different than restricting a minor from watching an R-rated movie or buying cigarettes where the seller would ask for identification in order for someone to purchase a mature rated game.On October 7, 2005, the California government decided to restrict the sale or rental of violent video games to minors under the age of 18 in the state. The Assembly Bill No. 1179 stated that violent video games do cause aggression or psychological damage to minors and “a person may not sell or rent a video game that has been labeled as a violent video game to a minor.”This was enacted during a time where video game consoles and the games themselves had become so technologically advanced that any depictions of gore or sex became very graphic and realistic, such as Call of Duty 2 and God of War (McNamara, Call of Duty 2) (Sulic, God of War). With the obvious amounts of increasing violence in video games and research supporting aggression in children, California lawmakers felt that some regulation had to take place.

However, this act seemed to be unconstitutional for many as it contradicted the protection of free speech under the First Amendment. Advocates of free speech believe that sexual, violent, or gory depictions should not be censored and the First Amendment should protect games so that as long as the game is properly rated, it can be sold to anyone, regardless of content. Soon after, the Entertainment Merchants Association and Entertainment Software Association filed a lawsuit against officials of California stating that the act violated the First Amendment. This suit was taken to the Supreme Court in 2010 and argued beginning in November. The major claim in the Brown vs. the Entertainment Merchants Association court case was that, albeit video games are a relatively new medium of entertainment, it is still considered to be like any other which means freedom of speech does not change “with a new and different communication medium.” On June 27, 2011, it was officially decided after a case lasting seven months, by the Supreme Court, that states do not have the power to restrict the sale of violent video games to minors as per the First Amendment, but sexually explicit material in games would still only be available to adults. Because of this ruling, retail stores that sell video games can voluntarily choose their own policies on curbing the sales of mature-rated video games to minors. Even though it may seem that the original act that restricted sales to adolescents was unconstitutional, it had been the only successful measure taken that had legitimately secured the sales of video games to minors. Even Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, supported a bill that was created in early 2013 with similar motives as the California legislation in 2005 (Assembly Bill No. 3987).  As video games become more advanced and graphic, it may seem that this controversial solution of banning video games will continue until a better one can prove to be more efficient and accepted.

CREATING AN OFFENDER LIST

Another one of the proposed solutions that have come up in the debate to increase the efforts of limiting video game sales to minors is to create an offender list of retailers and arcades which do allow minors to purchase or play violent and sexually explicit games. This was suggested as an idea in an article written by Kevin W. Saunders, a professor of law at Michigan State University with a PhD from the University of Miami, titled “Shielding Children from Violent Video Games through Ratings Offender Lists.”This solution was presented so that parents can have a better understanding of which stores are allowing access for minors to inappropriate games set by the ratings system (Saunders, 2). In this article, the author believes that there may be confusion for some parents on recognizing which games are made to be unsuitable for children or what content their children may be exposed to when visiting arcades. The ESRB, on the other hand, negates statements like these with evidence that their ratings are effective. An ESRB survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates was released in 2014 which assessed parents’ awareness and use of the ratings system. According to them, in 2014, 69% of the parents check a game’s rating before making a purchase, which is relatively high considering that only 43% of parents did so in 1999 (ESRB, Consumer Research).

Figure1.“ESRB Ratings: Parental Awareness & Use.” Chart. ESRB Awareness, 2014.Web.

 

Another study conducted by a gaming website based in the UK, Playr2.com, had 1,221 parents respond to a survey asking about video game use with children under 17. The data showed that 51% of parents would not be concerned if their child was playing a game with an age restriction and 61% believe that violent games have no effect on children. It is hard to really determine which study would have the most accurate results since the ESRB would be biased to promote the company and the gaming website does not have any major credentials to support its claims.

Creating offender lists does have some downfalls though. One of which would be the problem with setting up operations to find which stores allow access for minors to inappropriate games. The sting operations would prove to be, as seen in the past, time consuming and expensive as there are a countless number of stores that sell video games to children (Saunders 70). Also, because it is not federally illegal to sell M-rated games to children, offender lists could most probably unfairly bring down the business of small establishments if they choose to sell those games. Offender lists are also becoming less viable with time as video games are becoming more relevant. Retailers are more knowledgeable than before on the content of video games and more often than not, understand the descriptors and ratings sanctioned on games. If the retailers feel that a video game may be too inappropriate for a child, they will not allow the purchase, sometimes even indicated in their store policies (Wal-Mart, Mature Merchandise). The Federal Trade Commission even had an undercover study completed in 2012 on the enforcement of entertainment among video games, movies, and CDs. In this study, the researchers looked at six major retailers of video games and looked at their sales of M-rated video games to minors from the year 2000 to 2012. It was found that over the years, all retailers had a dramatic drop in sales to minors and most of them even sold the least that they ever had in2012 (FTC, Survey).

 

 

Figure 2.“Trend in Children’s Purchase of M-rated Games.” Chart.FTC Survey, 2012.Web.

 

 

The Federal Trade Commission would also seem to be not biased because its primary aims are to provide fair trade, but it is hard to determine if the data is similar across the world (FTC, About). This comes to show that it may not even be necessary for an offender list to be made as most retailers have already decreased their sales so immensely. Offender lists for video game retailers is still a stretch since there has not been enough research or tests to demonstrate that it would work with a large number of people, but according to the current evidence, offender lists would not be the best solution to reduce the sales of mature video games to adolescents.

UNIVERSALLY APPLYING RATINGS

The last major solution that has actually come to light the last few years is to apply a universal rating for all entertainment media. This means that movies, video games, CDs, and websites would all get a rating similar to each other. The reason being is so that it would be easier for parents to understand the ratings any entertainment media receives and that there would be less disagreement across industries on the different ratings.In the study, “A Validity Test of Movie, Television and Video-Game Ratings”, researchers David Walsh and Douglass Gentile, both doctors with experience in children psychology and parenting, believe that currently, the mix of ratings is confusing and contradictory for parents to understand. Also in this article, a survey displayed that many parents disagreed with the ratings that were given adolescent-appropriate across different media.  This survey was meant to show that having multiple systems also make it difficult to test if ratings are effective or not with parents (Walsh and Gentile).

Figure 3.“Appropriateness of PG-13-rated movies, TV-14-rated TV shows, and T-rated video games for 13- to 17-year-olds, as judged by parent raters.” Chart. A Validity Test of Movie, Television, and Video-Game Ratings, 2001.Article.

 

Yet, there are some clear problems with applying a universal ratings system across all industries. Because of the wide varieties of differences apparent in all the mediums, it would be extremely hard to create a rating system that covered all of the media. For example, a video game could not be rated the same as a CD because they both do not contain many similarities in content. Also, rating just a single game would require the effort of looking at all mediums in order to determine what would be the best rating. Also if all mediums were rated together, then there would have to be one board made up of all entertainment industries determining which ratings would be the most appropriate. These industries do often compete with each other, so it may seem that this competition would severely skew the ratings so that one media type could benefit over the other. Lastly, there has been no evidence so far that show a universal ratings system has any effectiveness on reducing a child’s exposure to explicit content (Dowd, Fretwell, and Singer). On the other hand, with all entertainment media being in a single device at our hands, it may seem that it would be more convenient for parents to have only one rating system. Still, if this solution did have the research to show that it is viable, implementing the solution would be a strenuous and near impossible task. The rating organizations across industries have been established for many years now and to start anew would be to completely disregard the previous work that the organizations have completed in order to properly rate their entertainment.

SHORT-TERM SOLUTION

All of the previous solutions demonstrated show that it would be tremendously for the video game industry to rely on any of those methods to protect minors from violent games. Each solution does have a possibility to be integrated within the ratings system, but the downfalls are most definitely outweighing the benefits. Furthermore, those solutions only look at ways that restrict access to violent games on a long-term basis. The only real solutions that can actually make a difference right now are the short-term ones. A simple, short term, cost-effective solution would be for increased awareness so that more parents understand video game ratings. Governments around the world have been increasing the focus on video games and internet safety.The UK government has been reforming its rating system so that there would be a better classification of its video games while the ESRB in America has teamed up with schools in order to inform the parents more about the ratings on video games through the use of brochures (Curriculum Review, PTA and ESRB) (Education, Action Plan).Many parents, as well as the video game industry, believe that this would be the best way for parents to be informed about ratings. It is not difficult to learn, and it will provide caretakers with a reliable and effortless method to determine which games are the best for their children. Since there has been no major backlash on this idea, it appears that this solution of better informing parents through schools and the government would benefit children the most.

CONCLUSION

Overall, video games have recently become a big part of our culture. Almost every child has played a video game and with the further advancements, it has become easier for anyone to access video games at any time. Because of this, it is now up to the parents and guardians of the children to be responsible and independently monitor what they believe are appropriate for their child to be using. So far, the only real deterrent of M-rated video game sales to minors are retail policies that determine if the stores want or not want to sell those games. Despite the fact that it is inarguably important for the youth to be protected from harsh violence and explicit sex in games, it is even more imperative for the caretakers to educate themselves on the gaming industry and the rating systems.

 


Sources:

“Action Plan for Improving Internet and Video Game Safety.” Education 319 (2008): 5. Web.

Assembly Bill No. 1179, 1179 (2005). Print.

Assembly Bill No. 3987, 3987 (2013). Print.

Braven, Jess. “California Can’t Curb Children’s Access to Videogames.” Wall Street Journal.N.p., 28 June 2011. Web.<http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304447804576411571732346148>.

BROWN, GOVERNOR OF CALIFORNIA, ET AL. v. ENTERTAINMENT MERCHANTS ASSOCIATION ET AL. 20. SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES. 27 June 2011. Print.

“Consumer Research.”Entertainment Software Rating Board.N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.esrb.org/about/awareness.jsp>.

Dowd, Nancy E., Dorothy G. Singer, and Robin Fretwell. Wilson. Handbook of Children, Culture, and Violence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006. Print.

“Enforcement.” Rating Enforcement and Advertising Review Council of ESRB. ESRB, n.d. Web.<http://www.esrb.org/ratings/enforcement.jsp>.

“ESRB History.” Entertainment Software Rating Board.ESRB, n.d. Web.<http://www.esrb.org/about/chronology.jsp>.

“Federal Trade Commission | Protecting America’s Consumers.” Federal Trade Commission | Protecting America’s Consumers. U.S. Government, n.d. Web.<https://www.ftc.gov/>.

“Mature Merchandise: Music, Video Games and Movies.” Wal-Mart, n.d. Web.<http://news.walmart.com/news-archive/2008/04/29/mature-merchandise-music-video-games-movies>.

McNamara, Tom. “Call of Duty 2.” IGN, 25 Oct. 2005. Web.<http://www.ign.com/articles/2005/10/25/call-of-duty-2-4>.

Possett, Ramya. “EVIDENCE AND RATINGS MATTER: WHAT VIDEO GAME JURISPRUDENCE CAN TEACH THE FCC.” George Mason University Civil Rights Law Journal 21.3 (2011): 471-504. Web.

“PTA and ESRB Launch Nationwide Video Game Rating Initiative.” Curriculum Review 46.5 (2007): 5. Web.

Saunders, Kevin W. “SHIELDING CHILDREN FROM VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES THROUGH RATINGS OFFENDER LISTS.” Indiana Law Rview 41.1 (2008): 55-103. Web.

Sulic, Ivan. “God of War.” IGN, 18 Mar. 2005. Web.<http://www.ign.com/articles/2005/03/18/god-of-war>.

“Violent Video Games: Restricting the Sale of Games With Graphic Content to Minors.” Supreme Court Debates 13.9 (2010): 2-3. Web.

Walsh, David A., and Douglas A. Gentile.”A Validity Test of Movie, Television and Video-Game Ratings.” Pediatrics 107.6 (2001): n. pag. Web.

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