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Mature-Rated Video Games Often Include Content Not Specified on Warning Labels

Armen Hareyan's picture

Parenting and Videogames

Over 80 percent of mature-rated video games portrayed acts involving violence, blood, sex, profanity or substances not included in the games' content warning labels, according to an article in the April issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, a theme issue on children and the media.

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) assigns age-based rating symbols and content descriptors that appear on video game boxes to inform consumers about game content, according to background information in the article. Although games rated M (for "mature") are intended for ages 17 years and older, the Federal Trade Commission reported that in 2002 consumers purchased almost 40 percent of M-rated video games for children younger than age 17 years. The FTC also reported that 69 percent of unaccompanied children aged 13 to 16 years were able to purchase M-rated video games.

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Kimberly M. Thompson, Sc.D., and colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, played and analyzed M-rated video games in order to assess their content and compared it to the ESRB descriptions accompanying each game. The researchers randomly selected to play 25 percent of 147 identified M-rated video games. After recording one hour of play, the researchers then divided the game into one-second intervals and analyzed them for violence, blood, sex, profanity, gambling and drug and alcohol content.

Of the 36 M-rated games played, nearly all received content descriptors for violence and blood and contained violence and blood. In approximately 42 hours of video game playing, the researchers observed 6,011 characters deaths due to violence, occurring at an average rate of 145 character deaths per hour; this included 4,268 human deaths, occurring at an average rate of 104 human deaths per hour. "M-rated video games are significantly more likely to contain blood, profanity and substances; depict more severe injuries to human and nonhuman characters; and have a higher rate of human deaths than video games rated T (for 'teen')," the authors write.

"These results confirm that the presence of an ESRB content descriptor means that game players likely will find the indicated content in the game but that parents should not interpret the absence of a content descriptor to mean the absence of content," they conclude. "Parents and physicians should recognize that popular M-rated games contain a wide range of unlabeled content and may expose children and adolescents to messages that may negatively influence their perceptions, attitudes and behaviors."
(Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2006;160:402-410)