Since the Federal Trade Commission last month found that the movie, music and electronic game industries engaged in "pervasive and aggressive marketing" of violent materials to children, politicians have been debating what to do.
While Washington postures about deplorable advertising practices, parents can take action by carefully studying a software box before they buy it. Parents can make a somewhat informed decision about unwanted violence and inappropriate material by utilizing the ratings system already in wide use by the software industry.
Although not perfect, the current system administered by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB, provides essential information for many titles. It's similar to film ratings, and parents who look for and understand the ratings can make good choices about the software their children see.
Since its formation in 1994, the ESRB--an arm of the Interactive Digital Software Assn.--has reviewed and rated more than 7,000 titles. It rates software for all platforms, including personal computers and video game consoles. The software industry widely supports this self-regulation, with between 80% and 85% of software publishers submitting their titles for review, according to ESRB President Arthur Pober.
To rate software, the ESRB chooses three people from its diverse panel of independent raters to analyze the content of submitted software. A rated software title displays the rating symbol on the front of the box. Additional information, called "content descriptors," can be found on the back of the box if the ESRB believes consumers need more information.
Software titles are put into one of five age categories, based on content:
* Early Childhood, designated by the letters "EC," is for children 3 and older.
* Everyone, designated by the letter "E," is appropriate for children 6 and older. Older boxes show this rating as "KA," or "Kids to Adults," which was used from 1994 to 1997.
* Teen, designated by the letter "T," is for older kids--13 and older.
* Mature, designated by the letter "M," is for users 17 and older.
* Adults Only, designated by the letters "AO," is not for children, period.
There is also a designation for software that has been submitted but has yet to receive its rating--Rating Pending, or "RP."
In addition to establishing age-appropriate content, the ESRB system uses longer descriptions that help explain why a title received a specific rating. Look for these content descriptors on the back of the software box. The descriptors fall into several categories, including:
* Violence, which is scaled from "mild animated" to "realistic blood and gore."
* Language, ranging from "mild," which can include words such as "damn," to "strong."
* Sexual themes, which range from "suggestive themes" to "strong sexual content."
* Comic mischief, which includes "gross vulgar humor."
* Use of drugs or alcohol in a glorified manner.
Obviously, parents need to pay attention to these ratings. If you can't find them on a software box, the ESRB maintains a toll-free number at (800) 771-3772, or you can check the Web site at http://www.esrb.com to obtain ratings information.
Although these ratings can help parents decide on a specific piece of software, they are not perfect. Don't be fooled into thinking that because software is rated Everyone it is without violence. E-rated games can have descriptors such as "Mild Animated Violence," "Mild Realistic Violence," "Animated Violence," "Realistic Violence," "Animated Blood" and "Realistic Blood."
For example, "Disney's Action Game, Tarzan" was rated Everyone with content descriptors of "Mild Animated Violence." In it, Tarzan wields a knife and uses exploding fruit to eliminate cute little animals. This is not software suitable for everyone.
Likewise, the descriptors--although helpful--might not paint the whole picture. Sometimes it is hard to figure out the degree of violence. Also, a given title might have a particular rating because of content other than violence, such as strong sexual content.
Nevertheless, the combination of the rating and the content descriptors arms parents with significantly more information and does a pretty good job of flagging titles with troublesome content.
Protecting your child from objectionable material at home is a good beginning, but there is always that kid down the block who has that Teen or even Mature title. Talk with your children and explain that you do not want them viewing titles with certain ratings. That way you can enlist their cooperation to avoid inappropriate titles outside the home. You might strategize with them about how to handle being asked to play a game that has a restrictive rating. Work with the parents of your child's friends and mention your wishes for your child. Most parents are sensitive to the requests of others.
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Before You Buy, Check the Corner
The video game you're looking to buy probably has a black-and-white box in the corner, letting you know what the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB, thinks of the content.
The ESRB has rated more than 7,000 titles submitted by more than 350 publishers since 1994.
In 1999, none of the top 20 computer and video games were rated for "Mature" audiences.