When kids plead for the latest, hottest $60 video game, parents have to wonder: Just what mayhem might pop up at the punch of a button or the jerk of a joystick?
Currently, parents can try to find out how violent or sexual a game is by looking at the package. But only Sega regularly rates titles for its systems.
That means parents who want to know more have to plow through the thick, kid-oriented game players' magazines, which gleefully point out the icky stuff ("Blowing away the prisoners is a ghoulish treat," one review raves). Or they could bust a thumb playing the game themselves.
Or they could just ask the kids. Wouldn't they speak up if anything was inappropriate for their tender little eyes?
Help is on the way. By Christmas, the video game industry estimates, 40% or more of the new games on store shelves will carry ratings. Consumers will know at a glance just how much gore, sex or profanity is actually in that CD-ROM, cartridge or floppy disk. By sometime next year, all new games are expected to be rated.
The call for video game ratings arose after the release in 1993 of a few violent games, notably Mortal Kombat. It featured characters ripping beating hearts and bloody spines from their foes. A sequel, Mortal Kombat II, was released earlier this month. Kids love them.
But many parents--and two U.S. senators, Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.)--don't. The senators held video game violence hearings in December and introduced legislation to create a national independent rating board for the games--unless the industry found a way to police itself.
With the threat of federal regulation hanging over them, the video game and computer software industries responded in a hurry. They initially worked together but hit an impasse, parted ways and came up with two voluntary rating systems. (Sega has said that it will retire its rating plan and take part in one of the industrywide systems.)
"I think (game makers) should be given a lot of credit," said Mark Traphagen, in-house attorney for the Software Publishers Assn., which launched one of the rating systems. "Putting logos on packages is like a cheese manufacturer putting a clogged heart out front."
They were under tremendous commercial pressure to do so. Major retail chains, including Toys 'R' Us, Wal-Mart, Sears and J.C. Penney, and video-game specialty stores, including Babbage's, Software Etc. and Electronic Boutique, said they wouldn't sell unrated games.
Here's a preview of the ratings, and the organizations that created them:
The Entertainment Software Rating Board was formed by the Interactive Digital Software Assn., which represents the major game system companies--Sega, Nintendo and Atari--and several game software companies. It started rating games Sept. 1.
The board reviews games and assigns one of five age-appropriate ratings, similar to those used by the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Ratings will appear on the front of the game boxes.
The categories are: EC (Early Childhood, ages 3-plus), K-A (kids to adults, ages 6-plus), T (teen, ages 13-plus), M (mature, ages 17-plus) and AO (adults only). Also, the back of the packages will carry "descriptors," short phrases outlining the content that determined the rating, in four categories: violent content, sexual themes, profanity and "other," which would include activities of concern to parents, such as gambling.
The other rating organization, the Recreational Software Advisory Council, was created by the Software Publishers Assn., the trade association for the personal computer software industry. It is expected to be rating games by the end of this month.
In this system, content will be scored in three areas: violence, nudity or sex, and profanity or vulgarity. If there is no such content, a symbol on the box will tell consumers that. On other games, a thermometer, graded from a low of 1 to a high of 4, will indicate just how much sex, violence or risque talk is in the game. Packages also will point out the game's content ("blood and gore" or "mild expletives") that earned the rating.
There is no age categorization in the Recreational Software Advisory Council's system.
"Our idea was to let consumers, primarily parents, be aware of what's in the (game) and let them decide for themselves whether it's appropriate," attorney Traphagen said.
The methods for determining game content differ: The Entertainment Software Rating Board will review videotapes, storyboards, scripts or narratives of the game. The Recreational Software Advisory Council will base its ratings on detailed questionnaires filled out and attested to by the software maker. Neither group will actually play the games.
Both rating boards will have the power to pull ratings or re-sticker products. Both boards said they will respond to consumer complaints and will spot-check games they have rated.