For the past decade, the National Institute on Media and the Family has released an annual MediaWise Video Game Report Card, detailing its appraisal of the industry's rating system and efforts to keep violent games out of the hands of children.
While the report card usually focuses on the shortcomings of the industry, this year's assessment gives out high marks to most parties. Console manufacturers earned an "A" for incorporating parental controls in all of their next-gen machines, while big-box retailers like Best Buy and Target also received an "A" for their adherence to policies about not selling games rated M for Mature to minors.
However, it wasn't quite a 4.0 year for the industry, as specialty game retailers were given an "F" for allowing anyone to purchase titles rated M for Mature, despite whatever store policy might have been in place. Also, in a category that wasn't present in last year's report, the NIMF gave an "incomplete" grade to Parental Involvement for the year.
"As the world of video games continues to evolve, parents are falling behind," the group said in a statement. "As we found last year, this year's parental survey uncovered an alarming gap between what kids say about the role of video games in their lives and what parents are willing to admit."
The group surveyed 1,430 third, fourth, and fifth-grade children and their parents and found that the two groups' responses to restricting gaming varied widely. For instance, while 1 percent of parents said they never helped decide what games to buy or rent, 25 percent of children said the parents didn't get involved in those decisions. Although more than 60 percent of parents said they had rules about how long their kids can spend playing games, only 36 percent of children said their gameplay was time restricted. The group attributed the disparity in responses to "parental optimism."
"This parental optimism is very unfortunate, because parents are in an extremely powerful position to make a difference in their children's outcomes," the report said. "Parents who are actively involved in their children's media habits have children who spend less time playing video games each week, get better grades in school, are less likely to be overweight, are less aggressive, are more prosocial, and have fewer attention problems in school. Active parental monitoring of children's media use appears to be a clear protective factor for children."
Even so, the group refused to give parents a failing grade, saying it "doesn't seem fair" to do that in light of "mixed messages from the video game industry."
"While representatives of the industry encourage parents to follow the ratings which warn certain age groups away from mature content, they simultaneously deny that video games have any impact on kids," the NIMF said. "Making matters worse, the rating system itself has flaws. Parents could be, and should be, doing a lot better, but at least part of their failure can be attributed to the confusion created by the game makers."
The report says the NIMF's own research has found that children who spend more time playing games are more likely to be overweight or obese, and that playing games in the bedroom further increases that likelihood. Furthermore, the group said that increased playing time correlates to poor grades in school and attention problems.
The group also expressed a concern about the "alarming" issue of gaming addiction.
"Many of the symptoms of this type of addiction are largely the same as the symptoms of other addictions including obsessive behaviors, deceitful behavior, neglecting people and responsibilities, and increased isolation," the report said. "Video game addiction has led some children to fail out of school, alienate themselves from everyone in their lives, and in extreme cases to commit suicide. Some of the most popular online community games practically demand an obsessive and time-consuming approach to play."
The NIMF points to South Korea and its government-supported treatment programs as one possible outcome of gaming addiction. "If the situation in South Korea is any indication of what is to come here, we will be largely unprepared for the number and intensity of cases of such addiction," the report said.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board responded to the report card in gentler terms than last year, when it gave the NIMF report card a grade of "F" for "inaccuracies, incomplete and misleading statements, omission of material facts, and flawed research."
"While we agree with NIMF that parents should be involved and informed when it comes to choosing video games for their children, we believe that the best way to achieve this is to educate and encourage them to make the right choices for their families," ESRB president Patricia Vance said, adding, "The tools are there for parents, and we continue to urge them to take advantage of the many helpful resources, including ESRB ratings, that help ensure that the games their children have access to are 'OK to Play.'"
The Entertainment Software Association also weighed in on the report card, with a statement from the organization's president, Douglas Lowenstein.
"We're pleased that the 2006 report card is more balanced and measured than in previous years, and that it encourages parents to use the ESRB ratings and other tools and acknowledges the effectiveness of industry ratings and educational programs," Lowenstein said. "At the same time, we're disappointed that NIMF continues to selectively cite only research designed to validate its anti-video game views and that it ignores a growing body of criticism challenging claims that games are harmful. … Like Rock 'n' Roll, video games will never die. Finger-pointing and demonizing a form of entertainment that is embraced by the millennial generation is fruitless. Partnering with parents to help them help their kids pays off."