Game Content Under the Microscope: Watch What Our Kids Watch

Should the ratings for video games be updated? Since being adopted in 1994 the landscape of video games has changed greatly, and some experts believe it is time for a revision, or at least redefinition of what is appropriate for adults and what is family friendly.

In this fourth part of our series on video game violence and content CrunchGear spoke with Doctor David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, an organization that was founded in 1996 to help “watch what our kids watch.” The group is an independent, nonpartisan, nonsectarian and nonprofit organization that claims to be based on research, education and advocacy.

familylogo.jpgDr. David Walsh is the group’s president and founder. He has written eight books, including the national best seller Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen (Free Press, 2004).

Crunchgear: Whenever there is a tragic event, such as the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech, there seems to be a rush to blame “the media,” notably video games. Why are video games such an easy target?

dave-walsh.jpgDavid Walsh: We always look for one answer, and there is no one answer. When tragedy happens it is usually a convergence of multiple factors, which makes it complicated, and what we want to do is we want to look for solution so we can prevent it happening again. And if we can identify one culprit, and do something about that one culprit then I think we kid ourselves into thinking that we’ve solved the problem.

And so I think one of the things that happens is that we kind of look for one answer. And I’ve always said with these tragedies that there isn’t one answer. It is usually a convergence of factors that kind of come together. I think that video games are often targeted because a lot of adults are often shocked by the level of violence in some the video games. That’s our experience, when people actually see some of the content in the video games they’re often shocked especially by fact that it is interactive. They quickly come to a gut level reaction that this has to have an effect on kids.

So there is there that gut reaction that is generated a little bit by shock. And it is a shock that is also fueled by a lack of knowledge. A lot of older adults, a lot of policy makers, a lot of parents don’t play video games. And when they see the images of a Grand Theft Auto: Vice City there is shock. And when someone like Jack Thompson on Fox News, they want to have some video to go along with it and they’re going to go through their archival footage, and find the most gruesome scenes from a video game that can be played.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve had people say over the last 10 years “that I had no idea.” I think it is that shock value. If you look for one answer it is the shock value, and the gut reaction that “this can’t be good for kids.”

The clearest example of this was when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, when it became public very quickly that they were very, very avid players of Doom, and so that got a lot of play. And when Virginia Tech happened we deliberately kept our mouths shut, because you have to have your facts lined up before you start talking. There were some people who vehemently said, “this has to be video games,” — and even Dr. Phil was out there saying “this has to be video games,” – even before we knew any of the facts of the case.

As you said in the pre-interview that on the one side there is Jack Thompson who says, “it is video games,” and on the other side the video game industry saying, “we had absolutely nothing to do with it,” we find ourselves in the middle.

It is interesting that Doug Lowenstein, the former executive director of the ESA, made a lot of waves when he spoke at (The Game Developers Conference), and said, “we are going to put our head in the sand on to our own detriment if we don’t take a look at something of the stuff we’re putting out, and the way that we talk about it.” There are some people, and I’m not an industry insider, but there were some people who have said that it was that speech that really rankled a lot of industry leaders. He was basically saying “you folks can’t get burying your head in the sand, saying ‘we have nothing to do with this.’”

CG: When video game ratings were created in 1994 games looked a lot less realistic. It was more “cartoony” at least visually. The violence in some games may have been there, but today things a whole lot more realistic.

Yes! In comparison what we have today.

Yes, in comparison of what we have today. I’ve asked the ESRB, but I’m looking for other options. Should the game ratings be revised now that the games look so much more realistic because it puts the violence in such a different context?

From that one you’ll get a pretty quick and direct answer from me! And I say yes! Pat Vance (at the ESRB) would not be at all surprised to hear me say yes. Because what I’ve been saying publicly for a couple of years now is that we need to revisit the AO rating.

And we need to revisit that because the technology has advanced so much, that we’re getting – we’re not there – but we’re getting closer and closer to virtual reality. And explicit sex will get an AO rating.

CG: Exactly.

DW: But the most grotesque, sadistic violence in the world won’t get it.

CG: The example that I’ve been giving to put (and the readers may be tired of hearing) is that if you play a war game without blood it is Teen, a war game with blood is Mature, but so are games with vast amounts of blood such as Doom3, as is a game with a criminal main character such as Scarface. Does this seem to make sense? It seems to me it makes the ratings more confusing.

DW: It doesn’t make sense to me. I haven’t used those same examples, but I’ve used the same type of argument for about two years with our video game report card. I believe the distinction between M and AO doesn’t make any sense.

I know, or at least I think I know the reason that they are staying away from AO, and that is because the commercial impact. Target will stock M, but Target will not stock an AO game. The AO is like the third rail; you don’t go near that AO rating because it will affect you in our sales.

CG: So should ratings of these games look more at the context of the violence and the content over all? And should content be considered because unlike with a film, it isn’t so easy for a parent to judge the game as a whole?

DW: Yes, I think the content and the context are important. Violence is not violence is not violence. Glorified violence where it emphasizes the gore or sadism is different, in my mind, and the impact on the player is different from violence in a World War II re-enactment game.

CG: Back to the ratings. There are these even steps from Teen to Mature to Adults Only, but game content doesn’t do easily match these steps. Is this a problem for parents? Do you see that maybe we’ll have “more steps” with the ratings, with a greater breakdown for the parents?

DW: I think that ESRB will resist any change in the ratings every step of the way. That’s based on my extensive conversations with them. Whenever we talk about ratings, the ESRB talks about how parents find them helpful, parents find them accurate and so the mantra of the ESRB is that it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

CG: Do the descriptors on the game packaging do enough? Is listing “violence, blood and gore” say enough? Especially when it says this on Dungeon Siege II, a 3D isometric RPG, but you see the same thing on a shooter like Doom3? So does this say enough?

DW: I think the descriptors could do more; they could do a lot more in helping the purchaser know what is in the game.

CG: I understand that the AO rating has been commandeered by the porn industry to some extent, but is there a way of creating a new adult rating to distinguish between a game like Dungeon Siege II and a Grand Theft Auto. Shouldn’t there be a way of making it easier to tell the difference?

DW: Yes, I think there should be. I think it is should tell us something that when other countries that have other systems ban games, literally outlawing them from being sold in that country. We don’t have that system, and I’m not suggesting we have that system. But there is something wrong when some countries make a game illegal, and we don’t even give it an Adults Only rating.

CG: Moving back to go full circle back to what I’ve heard about games that can be used for training. Can games train you to commit horrible crimes?

DW: I don’t believe there is any evidence that they train the skills necessary to do that. I think violent games can affect us in desensitization, and in terms of influencing attitudes.

I don’t know of any research that supports the opinion that video games actually help you develop the marksmanship skills to be a more proficient killer.