Acquire the license to the best health content in the world
Contact Us

Teen Video Game Packages Don't Tell All

Study finds some contain more sex, violence than what's listed

TUESDAY, Feb. 17, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Video games rated for teenagers often contain more sex, violence, gambling, and substance abuse than what is described on the game box, a new Harvard study finds.

Parents and pediatricians need to take a more active role in selecting the games and in discussing content with teens, the researchers say. Their study appears in the Feb. 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study authors, Kimberly Thompson, founder of Harvard University's Kids Risk Project, and Kevin Haninger, a Harvard doctoral student, used a random sample of 81 video games rated "T" for teen by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a self-regulatory body. The games were chosen from the 396 T-rated video games in the United States that had been released by April 1, 2001.

"We actually played a random sample of games for about an hour each and coded all the content we observed," says Thompson, who is also the co-founder and director of research for the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston.

In 48 percent of the games, the researchers found there was violence, sexual themes, profanity, substance use, or gambling that was not noted on the game box.

In 15 percent of the games, they also found depictions of alcohol or tobacco, but only 1 percent of the games carried a content descriptor saying that.

"In nearly half the games we played, we found one or more types of content that was not listed," says Haninger.

"The content descriptors are used and good when they are there," says Thompson. "But they are not always there."

The rating system works, she adds, "but there is certainly room for improvement."

A spokesman for the ESRB takes issue with the research conclusions, however, and says that other research found that parents were satisfied with the ratings.

The ESRB was created a decade ago to rate video games with age-based ratings: "C" for early childhood, "A" for adults only, "E" for everyone, "T" for teens, "M" for mature, and "RP" for rating pending. The ratings are displayed on the game box, as well as the content descriptors, to help consumers make appropriate choices.

More than half of 2-to-7-year-olds and 82 percent of 8-to-18-year-olds live in homes with at least one video game console, according to the authors. Video games are a multibillion-dollar industry.

A spokesman from the ESRB, Matthew Kagan, says that independent research has come up with different findings. An October 2003 study conducted by Peter Hart Research Associates showed 400 American parents actual footage from 80 video games and found more than three-quarters would have assigned the same rating as the ESRB or a less restrictive one.

The Harvard study, he says, was based on subjective evidence of the researchers.

On one point everyone agrees: No rating system can be a substitute for the judgment of informed parents.

Both the authors and the ESRB officials advise parents to talk to their children about video games and to actually play the game to see the content.

"No rating system can replace the judgment of parents," says Marc Szafran, ESRB's general counsel and senior vice president. "The system [ESRB] is a very useful tool. Parents still need to take a lead role in deciding which game is right" for their children.

Parents are "clueless" about video games and their content, says Dr. Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. And he suspects that many parents don't even know that the ESRB rating system exists.

Parents need to keep a closer eye on their children's video game choices, Strasburger says. His biggest concern is the "point and shoot" games in which players "kill" characters.

More information

For more information on the findings, go to the Harvard School of Public Health. For more information on the ratings themselves, visit the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

SOURCES: Kimberly Thompson, Sc.D., founder, Kids Risk Project, Harvard School of Public Health, and co-founder and director of research, Center on Media and Child Health, Children's Hospital Boston; Kevin Haninger, Ph.D. candidate, Harvard University, Boston; Marc Szafran, general counsel and senior vice president, and Matthew Kagan, spokesman, Entertainment Software Rating Board, New York City; Victor Strasburger, M.D., professor of pediatrics, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; Feb. 18, 2004, Journal of the American Medical Association
Consumer News