Almost every parent of a teenager wonders how on Earth they're going to be able to monitor what sensationalistic media images or ideas children are engrossed in today. On the radio, a pop singer boasts about her chest as a "milkshake" that brings all the boys to her yard. On the television, kids can see WB's "The Surreal Life," its sleazy reality-show plot often revolving around a porn star, Ron Jeremy. Then there are video games, which have grown increasingly sophisticated -- and unfortunately, increasingly raunchy and bloody -- since the musty old days of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man.
More than half of 2-to-7-year-olds and 82 percent of 8-to-18-year-olds live in homes with at least one video game console. Video games are a multibillion-dollar industry. Two Harvard researchers, Kimberly Thompson and Kevin Haninger, recently discovered that parents of teenagers can't rely very heavily on the video game ratings system created by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a self-regulating body.
The ESRB was created a decade ago to rate video games with age-based ratings: "E" for everyone, "C" for early childhood, "T" for teens, "M" for mature, "A" for adults only, and "RP" for rating pending. The ratings are displayed on the game box, as well as the content descriptors, to help consumers make appropriate choices.
The duo chose a random sample of 81 video games rated "T" (for Teen), played each of those titles for about an hour each and analyzed all the content they observed. They found that in almost half the games -- 48 percent -- there was violence, sexual themes, profanity, substance use or gambling, and none of it was noted on the game box. In 15 percent of the games, they also found depictions of alcohol or tobacco use; only one percent of the games carried a description of that content.
The failure of a ratings system should not come as a major surprise to parents. The ratings system for television shows have been a regular disappointment. Producers rate their own programs, which is not unlike the foxes guarding the henhouse. The Parents Television Council found in the late 1990s that 65 percent of programs containing obscenities did not carry an "L" warning for coarse language, and 76 percent of shows with sexual innuendo did not carry a "D" for sexually themed dialogue.
The Harvard team acknowledged that only playing the first hour of these video games in all likelihood did not reveal all of the manifestations in which the game labelers missed the boat. But parents rely on the game labeling system, largely because most parents won't stay and watch a video game unfold for an hour, let alone the other multiple levels of adventures that may take their children weeks to decipher. They're more likely to check out the acceptability of a half-hour sitcom than find out what happens on the Planet Gorgon in Level Five, especially when they couldn't figure out how to move beyond Level One.
It's sad that researchers would have to conclude that they believe the ESRB should actually have to "play the video games as part of its rating process to help ensure the absence of content other than that indicated by the materials submitted to the ESRB by the game manufacturers." What we have in the video game is not self-regulation. It is the slipshod appearance of self-regulation, in which the ESRB just grades based on what it's told by the game makers.
A graver problem for parents is that the games that many youngsters desire and chatter about are not rated "T," but rated "M," for supposedly "mature" audiences. This is the TV-land of ultraviolence, casual sex and casual profanity best known through the best seller "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City."
Rockstar Games, the sleaze merchants behind the "Vice City" cop-killing, woman-abusing fantasy, has a newer game out called "Manhunt." The goal of "Manhunt" is delivering the nastiest killings for filming -- the goriness of the killing is rated on a five-star scale. USA Today's reviewer explained: "I got plenty of one and two-star ratings by sneaking up behind thugs and stabbing them in the neck. Higher ratings are awarded depending on how much additional carnage you can add to the execution." The game's director praises the player: "The bodies are starting to stack up nicely ... We're getting some great footage here!"
We're trying to keep children away from R-rated violent movies that last 90 minutes, but in too many basements and kids' bedrooms in America, children are role-playing murderers for hours on end, ad infinitum.