The ratings board for the video game industry announced a new category Wednesday for children approaching their teens.
The "E10+" category should help fill a gap between games rated "E" for everyone, which some children outgrow, and "T" for teen, which are too violent or mature for some parents' tastes.
It might bring relief to households like the Pattons, who live in the San Francisco suburb of Belmont.
A big fan of Mario Bros. video games, 9-year-old Nicholas Patton is itching to play "Super Smash Bros. Melee." But to his dismay, his parents have declared the "T"-rated game off-limits. The disagreement has sparked incessant requests and some tense moments.
With the new category, the game, which includes a little more violence than other Mario-based games, might have gotten a permissible "E10+" instead. At the least, it could bring more choices to parents and their young children, who often don't see eye-to-eye when it comes to the form of entertainment that has infiltrated millions of American households.
"In that age group, you're left in the middle," said the boy's father, Paul Patton. "Unless you're into the sports games, the "E" games aren't that exciting anymore for him, and as for the "T" ones — your concept of reality isn't totally there yet."
Ratings, which range from "EC" for early childhood to "AO" for adults only, are meant to be a guide and certainly are not always in line with parents' views.
But the Entertainment Software Rating Board, a self-regulatory body set up by the gaming industry, believes the new "E10+" label will come in handy for parents, especially because the organization has seen an increasing number of games getting a "T" rating, perhaps because of mild violence, when the titles could be considered suitable for a 10-year-old.
"We found we were putting games we thought were preteen in the teen category," said Patricia Vance, president of the board. "And with the levels of sophistication in game play and graphics now, we felt there was enough nuance in the range of games to warrant a new category between 'E' and 'T.'"
The "E10+" rating means the video game may be suitable for children 10 and older. The title might contain moderate amounts of cartoon, fantasy or mild violence; mild profanity or minimally suggestive themes.
Likely candidates might be racing games with more extreme car crashes or games with super heroes or cartoon characters — cute as they may be — involved in some fighting, Vance said.
Though existing games won't be reclassified, ones that might have qualified as "E10+" include "Super Smash Bros. Melee," "Shrek," "Ratchet and Clank," and "Jak II," she said.
Two upcoming games already set to receive the new rating are "Donkey Kong Jungle Beat," in which the gorillas have to fight each other a bit more than other Donkey Kong games, and a game based on Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Vance said the latter is "on the scary side — something you might not want a 6-year-old to see but nothing that most preteens can't handle."
The underlying theory is that not all children are created equal: There are very distinct developmental differences in the ages of 6, 10, and 13.
Just as in real life, "you don't go from child to teen in one leap," said Ralph Lopez, a Cornell clinical pediatrics professor with whom the rating board consulted.
What counts as humorous for a 6-year-old will often be passe for a 10-year-old, Lopez said. A car hitting a tree could be terrifying for the younger set but humorous for a tween.
Another difference comes when the line between fantasy and reality is better understood, usually during the teen years. Hence, any game that depicts real injuries — versus unrealistic physical recoveries — gets at least a "T" rating.
Language is also a key issue, and the rating board examines not only the script of games but accompanying song lyrics.
The rating board recruits people — without any game industry ties — to review video games before they hit store shelves.
About 53 percent of the games sold in the United States in 2004 were rated "E," according to the board, though data analyzed by GamerMetrics and IGN.com show that only 46 percent of all games sold in 2004 were rated "E," with the bulk of sales in "T" and "M."
A random, telephone-based survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates last year found that about 70 percent of parents refer to the ratings every time they buy a game.
Count the Pattons among them. Their generous collection of 50-plus video games for their two sons, ages 5 and 9, are all rated "E" — except for one "T" game that a relative gave to Nicholas as a gift and is being stored in a closet until the fifth grader comes of age.
Among their concerns: limiting exposure to violence and more mature language.
Sure, even some Disney movies now include words that were unacceptable on the big screen 30 years ago, but it's another matter if the word is repeated 45 times in 30 minutes, Nicholas' father said.
"I don't feel we're rigid," said his mother, Kim Patton, "but we do feel we have to have limits. Nicholas has the whole rest of his life to be exposed to things."