Critics unamused by game violence

Ratings: The brutal nature of video games that are sometimes played by minors has prompted calls for stricter regulation of the industry.

August 26, 2004|By Rasheim Freeman | Rasheim Freeman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Video game violence has been an issue since the game Death Race was introduced during the 1970s.

Today's titles like Rockstar Games' Manhunt include scenes of victims being stabbed with shards of glass. Marvel Studio's upcoming game The Punisher is based on the comic book vigilante character who interrogates his victims by slamming their heads against a curb.

The Punisher and Manhunt represent an increasingly violent subset of games that are intended for mature gamers over age 18 but that frequently end up in the hands of minors, according to consumer advocates who say the industry should do more to police itself.

Many families rely on the industry-rating system to help them decide what games their children can purchase. But that rating system has come under increased scrutiny recently for its television marketing campaign that critics say does not go far enough in keeping young people from playing violent video games.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a private review board for video games, monitors the game industry with its rating system designed for appropriate age groups. Formed in 1994, the New York City-based group has a five-tiered system that ranks video games for various age groups.

The ratings group released a new marketing campaign during the past year called "OK to Play," which stars talk show host Regis Philbin and baseball star Derek Jeter. The television campaign is designed to educate parents about the video game ratings system.

But Leland Y. Yee, a California state legislator who has introduced two bills on video game violence since the commercial's debut, said the campaign is inadequate. He advocates government fines for retailers who sell mature or adult-rated titles to minors.

"Part of the reason that ["OK to Play"] does not work is that there is no teeth to it," Yee said of the campaign launched a year ago. "You can spend all the money that you want advertising the [video game] ratings system, but unless there [are] some fines that back it up, the advertising money does not mean a whole lot."

ESRB President Patricia Vance disagrees, saying a recent Federal Trade Commission study showed that more than 80 percent of parents were present when their children were buying games rated for mature audiences.

"The goal of `OK to Play' is to make sure that parents are aware of the current ratings system, and that they know how to use it," Vance said.

Some parents said the ratings system is an important part of the gaming world.

Jody Hoffman of White Marsh likes the system because it gives her an idea of what each game contains. She said her two children, ages 8 and 12, play video games often.

One of her children, she said, "has been playing games since he was 3. He started playing [13-and-older] games early on, but when I noticed that he got more aggressive the more he played certain video games, I laid down certain rules. Now, he usually only plays [6-or-older]-rated video games." She added that her son must take breaks between his game playing.

Amy Lesuer of Randallstown said her son, Andrew, 14, can distinguish between games and reality.

"I don't have a problem with him playing violent video games, because he doesn't mix reality with the video game violence," she said.

Critics such as Yee don't mind parents who consent to their children buying mature-rated video games, which are recommended for players 17 or older. Their concerns are based on a study by the FTC called the "Mystery Shopper Survey," which studied the availability of video games to minors. Minors were sent to stores to see if they could buy mature-rated games. The study found that roughly four out of every five of the children could buy a mature game from any major retailer.

Also, new data from GamerMetrics, an online index of gamer interest and opinion, shows that the game most 13- to 17-year-olds are interested in is the next installment in the Grand Theft Auto franchise. The game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, will allow players to manage a casino, kill rivals in drive-by shootings, and organize and manage a gang, according to IGN.com, a gaming industry group that analyzes and reviews interactive entertainment.

This research, coupled with the "Mystery Shopper Survey," has given rise to increased clinical scrutiny of video game violence.

Dr. Susan Villani, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University, has worked with several child advocacy groups that have campaigned to restrict children's access to violent video games. She also believes that game placement on retail shelves should be regulated.

"Imagine if you were to walk in a store and see adult magazines next to family-oriented magazines," Villani said. "You would be shocked."

In California, Yee has proposed a bill that would require video game retailers to display games with a rating system.

Opponents of Yee's bill, including the ESRB and digital rights groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, say the bill violates First Amendment rights.

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