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Is that shooter suitable for junior?

The video game industry has its own ratings system designed to help confused consumers make wise buying choices. But do parents really use the ratings system?
Playstation 3
A young gamer tests a PlayStation 3 at a Best Buy store in Plymouth Meeting, Pa. Video games are a hot ticket this holiday season, and the game industry wants to help consumers make wise buying decisions.George Widman / AP

Ever sneak into an R-rated movie as a kid? Of course you did. It’s a rite of passage, like skipping school or sneaking a smoke behind the cafeteria.

But if you’re a 13 year-old with a hankering to play "Halo," you’d better get your older brother to buy it for you. That game is rated M, for mature. And virtually no retailer — major or independent — will sell it to you.

But do parents really use these ratings when they buy games for their kids? Or is the ratings system little more than an olive branch from the video game industry to its most vocal, hand-wringing critics?

The answer is yes, and…sort of. It’s true that the Entertainment Software Rating Board was created by the video game industry as a way to get society off the industry’s back. But ESRB president Patricia Vance insists that the ratings system, now 12 years old, is relevant, useful — and widely used.

“We have very high awareness, and very high use,” says Vance. “Three-quarters of parents use the system all the time, or most of the time.”

Public service campaign
Despite this high level of awareness, the ESRB has launched, just in time for the holiday season, a new public service campaign. Earlier this month, the organization sent four spots featuring executives from GameStop and Best Buy to more than 800 broadcast and cable stations nationwide.

The ESRB’s game rating system is, like the film industry’s rating system, totally voluntary. So while game developers and publishers don’t have to submit to the organization’s rating process, they’ll be hard-pressed to find a retailer willing to carry their unrated game.

“At Wal-Mart we make every effort to be a responsible retailer and this includes the sale of video games,” says Wal-Mart spokesperson Karen A. Burk. “All of the items we carry are rated by the ESRB.”

As part of their partnerships with the ESRB, retailers agree not to sell M-rated games to kids under 17. They also agree to display signs at their stores and train their sales personnel to answer questions about the ratings system.

Different rating systems
All of the different entertainment mediums — TV, movies and video games — have completely different ratings systems, although they share many of the same basic principles. The distinctions are often lost on consumers — and parents.

The ESRB assigns one of six letter ratings to a game: E for everyone; EC, for early childhood, E 10, for everyone older than 10; T, for teens aged 13 and older; M, for mature audiences aged 17 and older and AO, the NC-17 of the video game world.

In addition to these ratings, the ESRB assigns content descriptors that help explain the reason why a game earned a particular rating. For example, Vivendi Universal’s “F.E.A.R: Extradition Point” is rated M for blood and gore, intense violence and strong language. Activision’s World War II game “Call of Duty III,” however, which contains plenty of gunplay, earned a T rating for blood, language and violence.

Who decides?
So, what differentiates violence from intense violence? And who makes these decisions, anyway?

The ESRB has a pool of part-time raters that it draws from, all from the New York metropolitan area. All of the raters are adults, and all have experience with children.

What might surprise you is that the raters don’t play the games themselves. The ESRB says that it would be extremely time-consuming for raters to play through an entire video game. Unlike movies, which usually max out at two hours and change, video games can take more than 50 hours to play from start-to-finish.

To get a rating, publishers must submit to the ESRB both a questionnaire and a video of the most extreme examples of any “objectionable” material. At least three raters will view the video individually, and then assign a rating based on a variety of criteria, including frequency of violence, sexuality, blood, strong language and drug use. Once a consensus is reached, the game is awarded a rating, which is then conveyed to the publisher.

“We get surprised or disappointed sometimes, but that’s because we’re too close to the product,” says Tony Key, vice-president of marketing for French publisher Ubisoft. “That’s why the ratings system works — because it leaves our building.”

Here come the politicians
But not everyone agrees. A hidden, sexually explicit scene discovered in the M-rated “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” set off a firestorm of controversy — and garnered Congressional attention.

In June, Vance took a drubbing over the “Grand Theft Auto” incident — and the video game industry in general — from members of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection. And in September, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., introduced a bill that would require the ESRB to have access to the full content and hands-on time to play the games it rates.

Still, the ESRB stands behind its ratings process. Publishers are legally bound to disclose all relevant content when submitting their game videos, and the ESRB can — and will — revoke a rating or take corrective actions against those that don’t comply.

Significant consequences
“That doesn’t happen very often,” says Vance. “There’s no incentive for a company not to disclose because the consequences are very significant.”

To wit: In 2005, the version of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” that contained the hidden scene was yanked from store shelves and given an AO rating — the kiss of retail death for a publisher. And in May, the ESRB re-rated Bethesda Softwarks’  “Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” from T to M over undisclosed content. A move like this can cost a company millions in lost marketing and advertising – not to mention sales.

For its part, the Electronic Software Association, the organization that represents the video game industry, believes that the ratings system works just fine for publishers — and parents.

“Over the past 12 years since its creation, parents have come to trust and use the ESRB rating system,” says ESA president Doug Lowenstein.  “And the ESRB is always working to ensure that it retains the respect that it has earned from American families.”

I did try to find parents who used the ratings system when buying games for their kids. But what I found might discourage the ESRB.

David Munson, of North Bend, Wash., pays no attention at all to ratings. Munson, 54, regularly plays shooter games like the M-rated “Rainbow Six Vegas”  with his 16 year-old son, Thomas. 

“He loves it, he’s good at it, and it’s something we do together,” he says.  “I’d rather have him playing video games than hanging out somewhere, doing something unhealthy.”

For Connie Brandt, a Redwood City, Calif. mother of two, it’s pointless to try and keep M-rated games from her 15 year-old son, Raymond.

“Once upon a time, when he was younger, I paid more attention to the ratings,” she says. “But I truly believe that even if I stopped him from buying certain games, he’d still find a way to play them.”