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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 21, 2003

Video games to display clearer ratings

By Erika D. Smith and Denise Grollmus
Knight Ridder News Service

Navigating the sea of video games that comes out every week hasn't been easy for parents — especially for those worried about exposing their kids to violence.

But parents will get more help now that the Entertainment Software Rating Board has added four new terms to better describe the content of games. It also convinced software makers to put bigger, bolder labels on the back of their boxes to draw attention to those warnings.

"The goal was to give parents as much information as possible," said Marc Szafran, senior vice president at ESRB, a self-regulatory agency that rates games. Linda Kearns said she could have used more information about "Airblade" when she let her sons play it last Christmas.

As Kearns watched Josh, 13, and Eli, 10, take on the Playstation 2 title, she was shocked by what she saw. (The game is rated "T" for "Teen.")

"I couldn't believe the sexual nature, bad language and violence of the game, so I made them return it and I felt so bad because it was their Christmas present," said Kearns of Diamond, Ohio. "We (now) rent everything before we buy it."

The new content descriptors, which already are on a handful of games, only apply to violence. Twenty-six other descriptors covering everything from mature humor to nudity already exist. They work in conjunction with rating symbols similar to those used by the movie industry.

Instead of the old descriptors of "violence" and "mild violence," new games will have labels that say "cartoon violence," "fantasy violence," "intense violence" or "sexual violence."

Szafran would not cite examples of games that could get a "cartoon violence" or an "intense violence" label, but the latter probably will apply to popular games such as "Grand Theft Auto" and "Max Payne."

And that's just fine with Scott Miller, chief executive of 3D Realms, which developed "Max Payne."

Miller, of Garland, Texas, is a well-known opponent of the ESRB. But that animosity stems from the unfairness of its approach, he said.

The new descriptors for violence could change all that.

"It's good they're breaking the (violence) categories down," he said. "We didn't like the fact that cartoon violence was lumped in with real violence."

The "Payne" series, with its oozing blood and blazing guns, is definitely for adults, he said. But the alien shoot 'em up "Duke Nukem," another game 3D Realms developed, is "pure fantasy," he said. It ruffled his feathers when both games received the same rating for violence. "We felt we were unfairly punished," Miller said.

ESRB's rating system has two parts.

The rating symbol, as in T for Teen, suggests an appropriate age group for each game and provides general information about its content. Rating symbols are on front of every video game package.

Content descriptors, like the new violence warnings, are on the back of most games.

Last year, 63 percent of games received an E (for everyone) rating, 27 percent got T (for teenagers), 8 percent were M (for mature audiences only) and 2 percent were EC (for early childhood).

ESRB will add suggested ages to the mature and adult rating symbols this year.

Although video game ratings are meant to lead parents in the right direction, they can be misleading.

A study conducted by San Francisco-based Children NOW found that out of 43 games rated E, 34 games still contained some type of violence.

"The misleading ratings on video games make it difficult for parents to find appropriate material for their children," said Patti Miller, a director at Children NOW.

Although ratings are helpful, parents shouldn't assume that they are a substitute for their own judgment, Miller said.

"They can be incomplete, so it's always useful to keep your video game system in an open space where you can watch them play," she said.

For the most part, California game developer Noah Falstein said ESRB's ratings are a good thing, and so are the new content descriptors. "Now whether their characterization of what's violent is accurate ... ," he said, trailing off.

Falstein is a member of the International Game Developers Association's Violence and Social Issues Committee, which is against censorship but not necessarily against ratings. "I'm in favor of anything that provides the consumer with what they need to know," he said. " ... I'd rather make an informed decision than have some legislator do it for me."

In the mid-1990s, legislators led by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Herb Kohl, D-Wis., prompted the broader industry effort to rate video games. They had threatened to legislate a rating system if the industry didn't come up with a satisfactory one voluntarily.

Now a group of "ordinary Americans" hired and trained by ESRB select ratings and content descriptors for every game on the market, Szafran said.