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MediaWise report slams US industry for "mixed messages" over ratings

A new report into videogames from the US National Institute on Media and the Family has accused the industry of confusing parents with mixed messages over the importance of the ESRB ratings system.

A new report into videogames from the US National Institute on Media and the Family has accused the industry of confusing parents with mixed messages over the importance of the ESRB ratings system.

The MediaWeise Video Game Report card, which is the ninth annual such report to be published into the practices of the industry with regard to the welfare of children and teenagers, also criticised the failure of the industry to use the "Adults Only (AO)" rating for particularly explicit games.

"Parents get a constant stream of mixed messages about video games," the report claims. "On the one hand they are told by the industry to pay attention to the ratings. On the other hand the industry denies that any of these games are harmful. So what parents hear is 'Pay attention to the ratings, but it really doesn't matter if you do.'"

The report cites Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as an example of this confusion, noting that reviewers have praised the game as "one of the greatest ever" without noting its "immoral story line."

It also criticised the industry for failing to use the top rating in the ESRB arsenal, the Adults Only (AO) rating, claiming that publishers are manipulating the criteria of the rating system to get Mature (M) ratings for their games rather than AO ratings, which would prevent the titles from being sold by many retailers.

Games including Doom 3, GTA San Andreas, Half-Life 2 and Halo 2 are singled out by the report as being "games to avoid" for parents with children and teenagers, while titles such as ESPN NFL 2k5, Pikmin 2, Sly 2: Band of Thieves and Karaoke Revolution are recommended for this audience.

The accusations levelled at the industry by the report seem somewhat unfair in many ways - particularly the implication that the weight of the ESRB ratings is being compromised because the industry doesn't believe that videogames damage children. There's a clear line between "products which are unsuitable for children" and "products which are damaging to children" which parents might reasonably be expected to decide for themselves.

However, the report does note that the enforcement of rating systems is improving in American retail stores, with a "secret shopper" survey resulting in only 34 per cent of underage children being able to buy M-rated games - although boys as young as seven were able to buy M-rated games 50 per cent of the time, with retailers much more likely to deny their sales to girls.

Responding to the report, Hal Halpin, president of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association, claimed that it was unhelpful to conduct such surveys before retailers had fully implemented the self-regulation policies which they have committed to.

"It is our belief that it is premature to judge the effectiveness of new and not yet fully-implemented industry self-regulation due to the timing of the research in question," he said in a statement. "The industry's leading retailers of computer and video games made a substantial and tangible commitment last December (2003) to begin or otherwise re-double their individual and collective efforts in inhibiting the sale of Mature-rated games to minors by this coming December (2004)."

"Performing 'sting operations' earlier than that date is divisive, intentionally contrarian, and ultimately renders the data statistically-irrelevant," he continued. "Questioning the retailer's commitment to programs which are just being rolled-out is fruitless in that they haven't been given a fair opportunity to implement these policies."

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.