According to statistics compiled by the Washington D.C.-based Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the average age of computer and video game players is 30 years old. Which means that many of the games on the market are geared toward adults — and a portion of those include content that is inappropriate for children. Smack in the middle of the holiday gift-buying season, with our kids — many game-savvier that we are — clamoring for the newest and hottest options out there, how can we be sure what we’re buying is suitable and safe?
Enter the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a non-profit, self-regulatory body headquartered in Manhattan and established in 1994 by the ESA to apply and enforce ratings and advertising guidelines for the interactive entertainment software industry. Simply put, it’s thanks to the ESRB that on the front of virtually every interactive game available is a sticker with one of six ratings symbols, from EC (Early Childhood), E (Everyone) and the most recent E10+ (Everyone 10 and older), up through T (Teen), M (Mature) and AO (Adults Only – 18 and up). On the back of the package are ESRB’s relevant Content Descriptors, briefly describing content in the game that could be of concern to parents. There are 32 descriptors ranging from Comic Mischief and Crude Humor to Strong Sexual Content and Blood and Gore. Armed with such information, even the most naïve parent can make a knowledgeable decision when purchasing a game.
“The reality is, interactive games are among the easiest forms of entertainment to control,” says Patricia E. Vance, ESRB’s president since 2002 and a single mother of two ages 13 and 19. “The Internet is nearly impossible, television is difficult, but with videogames, you have to rent or buy them, which means a lot of opportunity for control.”
Vance, who lives in Briarcliff Manor in Westchester, came to the ESRB after a long career in interactive consumer media. “One of the things that attracted me to ESRB,” she says, “was being able to leverage my experience in interactive media to do something positive.”
That “something positive” includes overseeing the assignment of more than 1,000 ratings a year of products from over 550 software publishers. “We make sure they’re accurate and consistent,” she says.
Ratings are determined by adult “raters,” Vance explains, who work 2-3 hours a week evaluating game content. Three raters per game enter rating categories for every scene, and final ratings are determined by majority consensus. “They don’t actually play the game,” she says. “They go through it scene by scene.”
Except for the most complex games, rating can usually be completed in less than an hour. “There are lots of card games and racing games that are pretty straightforward,” says Vance, adding that the majority receives an E rating. In 2004, 54 percent of the 1,036 games rated by the ESRB received an E, 33 percent received a T, 12 percent received an M, and less than 1 percent received either an EC or an AO. “Companies are not required to submit their games to us, but almost all do,” she adds, “and once they have, they’re bound to follow our rules.”
Monitoring this compliance is the responsibility of the ESRB’s Advertising Review Council (ARC), established to ensure that ratings are displayed properly, advertising is truthful, and marketing is not targeting audiences for whom products are not appropriate.
“We have someone who monitors all advertising outlets,” Vance says, “and we have testers who play games all day to look for undisclosed content.” She cites the recent scandal involving the PC version of the M-rated game, “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas”, in which a hacker from the Netherlands created and posted online a program that unlocked inappropriate material in the game. ESRB responded by giving the game’s publisher two options. “They could either take back all their product and re-release it without the undesirable content,” she explains, “or they could re-sticker the product with an AO rating, which is what they did.
“The fact is,” she continues, “lots of games, especially PC versions, have modifications that parents aren’t aware of. This incident shows that our enforcement system is working, and that we took swift action.”
Vance reassures parents that regardless of the increasing number of M-rated games on the market, using ESRB’s rating system, they should not feel overwhelmed. “Even if you don’t play games or know them, you can rely on the ratings or read a review,” she says. ESRB’s website, www.esrb.org, includes a searchable database of all rated games.
ESRB’s research indicates that 70 percent of parents use its rating system when purchasing games for their children. “Kids always want the latest, greatest games, but parents shouldn’t feel pressured to buy them, and they shouldn’t feel guilty saying no,” says Vance. Besides, she adds, “There are lots of great products this season for all ages. Despite what parents may hear, the vast majority of games are appropriate for kids.”
As for her own kids, whom she describes as “not avid game players,” they’re impressed with Mom’s job. “I can talk the talk with their friends,” Vance says. “They think what I do is pretty cool.”
SIDEBAR: ESRB’s Tips for Parents: Choosing the Right Games ·Learn about a game’s content before making a purchase decision. Parents will find that game reviews in newspapers and magazines, and on the Internet are excellent sources of information.
·Check the rating and content descriptors before you head out to the store by searching at www.esrb.org, where you can search games by title, rating, content descriptor, publisher and platform. ·Talk about games with other parents, older children, and video game store clerks, who are often gamers themselves. This is a good way to learn about computer and video games.
·Play computer and video games with your children, watch what they are playing, and talk with them about games as often as possible.
Consider your child’s unique personality and abilities when selecting computer and video games.