Last year, the National Institute on Media and Family gave the gaming industry a mostly glowing review in its annual MediaWise Video Game Report Card, which evaluates the industry's efforts to keep violent or offensive games out of the hands of kids. This year, however, the NIMF has a strongly different take, calling the industry's performance "an ominous backslide on multiple fronts."
The NIMF began its assessment of the industry by lauding efforts of some specialty retailers and console makers to limit children's exposure to what it considers to be inappropriate games. Examples of this include the family timer being added to today's Xbox 360 fall firmware update, as well as Target's removal of Take-Two's controversial Manhunt 2 from store shelves.
The NIMF feels that the industry on the whole has become complacent with what the report calls "voluntary standards" that regulate games. "But right now, families and retailers have put too much faith in the current ratings system; the Entertainment Software Rating Board has put too much trust in the gaming industry; and some in the gaming industry have not done enough to monitor themselves," reads the report.
The NIMF takes particular exception to some churches and libraries using games to bring in a new wave of young audiences. The NIMF states these efforts "undercut the rating system and sabotage parents who are trying to follow the ratings and restrict their children from playing M-rated games."
For the first time, the NIMF also teamed with pollsters Harris Interactive to determine the role of games in the lives of kids and their parents. The online survey polled 1,360 participants ages 8 to 18 and 2,392 adults aged 18 and over (690 of which were parents) within the US. The survey found that 72 percent of parents knew little to nothing about the ratings system and were unable to recognize many ESRB ratings symbols. It also found that 38 percent of mothers and 31 percent of fathers never play games with their kids. Games are also a source of arguments, according to the poll, with 38 percent of parents saying they argue very often with their kids over playtime and when games should be played.
"Overall, the MediaWise-Harris Interactive Video Game Report Card Poll suggests that parental involvement is lower than it should be when it comes to the role of video games in their kids' lives," concluded the report. "For the most part, useful ratings information is available. It is up to parents to put it to use. The data, however, show that the ratings are not serving their intended purpose in the lives of American families."
The NIMF's report also addressed the recent controversy surrounding the ESRB's rerating of Manhunt 2. The report called the ESRB's argument that the content is only accessible through illegal mods "nonsense," saying that "the ratings process has not kept up with technological advances." According to the NIMF, simply bringing to light objectionable content on the game disc that is normally inaccessible to users is not enough, saying "the ESRB fails to discourage hackers and makes adult content all the more enticing to children in its right-under-their-noses secrecy."
The NIMF believes not enough is being done to curb what it calls the "undeniable potential harms of excessively violent video games." To highlight the absolute possibility of harm, the NIMF points to several research studies conducted this year that directly link games to learning.
"In one study, 375 adolescent and young adult cancer patients were randomly assigned to play either a commercial video game or also a game developed to teach about cancer and its treatment (Re-Mission). Those who played Re-Mission had significantly higher gains in cancer knowledge," the report said, referencing a research study appearing in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
As it has in the past, the ESRB quickly responded to the MediaWise report card. Unsurprisingly, the ratings board takes exception with many of the accusations purported by the NIMF. "This year's NIMF Report Card contradicts recent Federal Trade Commission findings related to parents' awareness, use and satisfaction with ESRB ratings, as well as retailer support of the ratings," said ESRB president Patricia Vance in a statement. "In addition, NIMF exhibits a significant lack of understanding of and, as a result, grossly misrepresents the facts surrounding last month's hack into pirated versions of Manhunt 2, a game rated for ages 17 and older that carried prominent and explicit warnings to consumers about its violent content. At a time of year when parents are looking for helpful guidance about video games, this year's Report Card does little more than sow unwarranted doubt about effective tools like ESRB ratings."
Vance's statement did not specifically detail what facts about the Manhunt 2 incident were misrepresented by NIMF.
Summarizing the FTC's findings, Vance said, "Its nationwide survey of over 1,300 parents showed that nearly nine in 10 parents with children that play video games are satisfied with the ESRB rating system, three in four use it regularly, 94 percent find the ratings easy to understand, and 59 percent never let their children play Mature-rated games. The most recent FTC mystery shopper research concluded that 'substantial' progress continues to be made by retailers to enforce their store policies regarding the sale or rental of M-rated games to those under 17, matching that of theatres' restrictions of admittance to R-rated films and far exceeding that for the sale of R-rated DVDs."
According to the FTC report, secret shoppers aged 13 to 16 were able to buy M-rated games 42 percent of the time, while children successfully purchased R-rated movie tickets 39 percent of the time. For R-rated DVDs, undercover shoppers had a 71 percent success rate in walking out with the goods.