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Game Strategy for Parents: Use Ratings, Be Involved

Oversight Is Best Way to Avoid Violent Games

October 26, 2000|MARK SURFAS | Mark Surfas is chief executive and president of GameSpy Industries. mark@gamespy.com

The recent debate about violence in the media seems to have centered on movies, but the electronic game industry has not been immune. The Federal Trade Commission scolded the makers of movies, television programs and electronic entertainment for targeting violent material to teenagers and children.

It was a troubling report, and it will have repercussions within the game world, the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. entertainment industry. Games and game software now make up a $9-billion industry, larger than the domestic film industry. It's estimated that the game industry will continue to grow at a strong rate, probably doubling by 2004.

Even more troubling is the thought of parents unnecessarily frightened by media outlets looking for juicy scandal stories and politicians fishing for the next sound bite. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. Although some games are certainly not for children, the whole of the gaming industry doesn't constitute "cultural pollution," as Vice President Al Gore remarked at a campaign stop this month.

Before we lump all the game developers together and start talking about the legislation to fix the problem, it's important to note that a parent's best protection for children is, and always will be, good common sense. Parents of children clamoring for the latest PlayStation game should take the time to understand both the common ratings system available today and the games themselves.

Just like movies, video games receive their own ratings. Publishers have placed the now-ubiquitous black-and-white box of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB, on boxes since 1994. The ESRB has rated more than 7,000 titles submitted by more than 350 publishers.

The rating categories, found on both packaging and advertising materials, are Early Childhood, Everyone, Teen, Mature and Adults Only. (See accompanying story for a complete discussion of ESRB ratings.) In 1999, none of the top 20 computer and video games were rated for "Mature" audiences or older.

Understanding the ratings is a good start, but the ratings themselves have their detractors. Unlike a movie that's the same every time you view it, the interactive nature of games makes it difficult to shoehorn games into nice, neat categories. Open-ended games, such as city-building simulations in which the player determines the actual direction of play, are especially difficult to rate. For instance, will the player build a city or destroy one?

So ratings aren't a magic bullet. And teenagers have always been skilled at getting their hands on things they shouldn't. The best solution, then, is encouraging parents to take a more active role in their children's game-playing. Ratings are important, but what's really needed are healthy doses of intelligence and perspective. Part of the reason ESRB ratings are seen as necessary is that families often don't play together. When parents are involved with their children's game-playing, there's no need to look at a rating label to determine what they're playing and whether it's appropriate.

Games have changed. Forget "Pong" or "PacMan." PC and console games today are often elegant creations, designed by some of the most creative and talented people working in the entertainment field. A typical PC game at default settings will probably provide more than 50 hours of entertainment--not including multiplayer and online modes, which offer nearly unlimited play opportunities.

When compared with a night at the movies, that's a heck of a bargain. And with PCs installed in more than half of U.S. homes and with more than 50 million consoles sold for home use, this is the future of entertainment for coming generations.

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