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Anti-tobacco group takes games to task

Truth Initiative calls for tobacco use to trigger an automatic M rating from ESRB and for devs to stop featuring it in games kids play

It's time for the games industry to stop glamorizing tobacco use for kids, according to report released today by anti-smoking organization Truth Initiative. The group is calling on publishers to stop depicting tobacco use in games targeting children, and for the Entertainment Software Rating Board to hand out M-for-Mature ratings for any game depicting tobacco use.

"We need to shine a light on the gaming industry, much like with movies, and all smoking imagery should be removed from video games played by youth," said Truth Initiative CEO and president Robin Koval. "Far too many games feature characters who smoke and are portrayed as strong and powerful, sending a very dangerous message to young people that couldn't be further from the truth."

The group said "more than a dozen games" in 2016 featured tobacco use, with at least five of them--Overwatch, Batman: Return to Arkham, and XCOM 2 were specifically named--rated T-for-Teen.

The Truth Initiative also took the ESRB to task for not consistently including tobacco use on its content descriptors. The group cited a 2015 survey where 42% of the games participants reported playing contained tobacco imagery, but only 8 percent of the games contained descriptors warning of tobacco use.

All of the T-rated games mentioned in the group's report have content descriptors about tobacco use or references, and most of the M-for-Mature rated games mentioned have drug use content descriptors that would seem to cover tobacco as well. Some exceptions were the Halo series (which has never received a tobacco or drug use content descriptor), the Assassin's Creed series (which has never had a tobacco descriptor and only ever had a drug reference descriptor on 2015's Syndicate), and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

The group called on developers and publishers to stop featuring tobacco use in their games, particularly those played by children, regardless of ESRB rating. It also wants the ESRB to more consistently label games that feature tobacco use and give those titles a Mature rating. Beyond that, it called on parents and adults to consider the issue when purchasing games for kids, for researchers to conduct more studies on ties between games and tobacco use, and for legislators to acknowledge that tobacco depictions in games "may undermine public health gains in the reduction of youth tobacco use."

[UPDATE] An ESRB representative provided the following explanation about the group's content descriptors:

"Content descriptors are not intended to be a listing of every type of content one might encounter in the course of playing a game. They are applied within the context of the rating category assigned to that game, and are there to provide consumers with additional information about elements in a game that may have triggered a particular rating and/or may be of interest or concern relative to the age appropriateness of the rating category assigned.

"ESRB uses about 30 different descriptors to represent a range of content including violence; blood; gore; suggestive or sexually-oriented themes; nudity; use of drugs, alcohol or tobacco; language; crude humor; and more. With the understanding of how content descriptors are assigned, it's easier to see why tobacco-related content descriptors may not be included for titles rated M (Mature 17+), especially if it includes numerous other descriptors that the raters felt were more relevant to the rating assigned to the game. Conversely, raters are far more likely to assign tobacco-related content descriptors to less restrictively rated games that include any material depictions of tobacco or tobacco use."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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