Trapped in the Matrix Of Unreal Ratings Systems
By Daphne White
Sunday, May 25, 2003; Page B05
I recently spent half an hour watching a teenage boy play the current No. 1-selling video game in the world. As I looked on, he cheerfully killed six police officers by shooting them in the stomach with a shotgun, broke the necks of four others, stabbed two people with a stake and participated in several drive-by shootings. The game's statistics page showed that in less than four hours, he had fired 9,662 shots and scored 574 "kills." All done to an exciting cinematic score and enhanced sound effects for the machine guns, martial arts kicks and explosions.
"I know you are out there. You possess great skills. Follow the white rabbit," a disembodied voice on the game's soundtrack encouraged the teen. " 'Follow the white rabbit' -- that's a line from the first movie!" the boy exclaimed happily, and prepared for his next murderous mission.
And what is the name of this thrilling game? Enter the Matrix -- a "companion" game to the recent blockbuster movie "The Matrix Reloaded." This game sold a record 1 million copies in North America and Europe in the first week following its release.
Now, follow the white rabbit. Look at the rating proudly displayed on the front of the game. You're thinking, M for "mature," right? As in, appropriate for players 17 or older? After all, the movie itself is rated R. Well -- wrong. The game is rated T. For "teen." As in anyone 13 or older. The teenager I watched is 15.
How, I want to know, is this possible? This game actually shows more violence per minute than the film. Could this be a random mistake, a hole in the Matrix? Not! According to the copy on the video game box, the movie and video game together constitute "the most integrated entertainment experience to date." The game includes one hour of exclusive film footage, and this seamless interface "redefines the relationship between Hollywood and video gaming," also according to the game's box. The hype continues: "There is only one way to enter The Matrix. Larry and Andy Wachowski, creators of the Matrix trilogy, invite you to enter an alternate reality."
The actual "alternate reality" being sold here is a reality in which an ultra-violent, adult-rated movie like "Matrix Reloaded" can be marketed to a younger audience through a companion video game -- and no harm is done. Don't succumb to that reality. We're not talking fairy-tale violence here, or mild cartoon violence. The intensity, gruesomeness and morbid nature of these games makes them comparable to a form of obscenity. "It would be an odd conception of the First Amendment . . . that would allow a state to prevent a boy from purchasing a magazine containing topless women in provocative poses . . . but give the same boy a constitutional right to train to become a sniper at the local arcade without his parent's permission," wrote U.S. District Judge David F. Hamilton in upholding an Indianapolis video game ordinance that would have allowed the city to fine retailers who sell or rent explicit video games to minors. The video game industry successfully overturned the ruling on appeal, but Washington state just passed a first-in-the-nation bill to limit sales or rentals of video games depicting violence against police to minors, and a similar bill is pending in Congress.
As a parent, what I want to know is this: Who comes up with these ratings systems that allow obscene levels of violence to be marketed to children and teens? For the answer to this question, pay no attention to the two men behind the screen: Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), representing the movie industry, and Doug Lowenstein of the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), representing the video game industry. They tell you their ratings boards are "independent," but they themselves created the boards, they hire the boards' directors and their industries pay the raters' salaries.
Neither industry has been willing to make public the criteria used to arrive at the ratings. From what I've been able to determine, there are few written guidelines for either system. The ratings form a moving target, as each game and movie pushes the envelope further. Movies that would have received an R rating 10 years ago now often receive a PG-13 or even a PG rating. I'm thinking of movies like "Austin Powers in Goldmember," "The Hot Chick" (one reviewer said the content of this PG-13 movie is "closer to NC-17"), and "Kangaroo Jack," which Nell Minow, the Movie Mom, says was originally made as an R-rated movie -- but ended up, with a few judicious cuts, and through the miracle of the MPAA ratings, as a PG film advertised to tots.
I once asked an MPAA spokesman whether there were any child psychologists, teachers or early childhood experts on the ratings board. "We used to have them," he replied patiently, "but they didn't work out." The only qualifications for serving on the MPAA ratings board is being a parent and living within commuting distance of Hollywood. The names and identities of the actual raters are Top Secret. Even regulators at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), who have written several reports on the marketing of violent entertainment to children, were not allowed to interview these "independent" raters -- not even from behind the safety of a privacy screen. Top government spies and informers can testify in Congress from behind a screen -- but these "independent" raters cannot.
The reason for the secrecy is clear: The purpose of these "independent" industry-controlled ratings boards is to sell as much product to as many people as possible. Teenage boys are a particularly desirable demographic, since 95 percent of them play video games every month and see their favorite movies three or four times. So a T-rated video game or a PG-13 rated movie can theoretically be marketed to more people than adult-rated products.
But follow the white rabbit. In a landmark September 2000 report, the FTC found a "pervasive and aggressive marketing" of adult-rated violent movies and video games to children, undermining the industries' own ratings systems. Unfortunately, things have only gotten worse in the past three years. Both industries are still marketing adult-level violence to minors. The financial success of "Matrix Reloaded" has emboldened Joel Silver, the movie's producer, to express the hope that it will prompt changes in MPAA ratings. "Obviously, people aren't bothered by violence that isn't gratuitous," Silver told USA Today. "The MPAA shouldn't be, either." The hope is that "Matrix Reloaded" will open the door to the marketing of other R-rated films to minors -- perhaps with their own T-rated video game tie-ins.
Why should this matter, you ask? These are just make-believe movies and video games, right? And children know the difference between fantasy and reality, don't they?
Well, new brain research indicates that teenagers' brains -- not just children's brains -- are still developing, and that they may store violent images as real memories. The consensus of the public health community, based on more than 30 years of research, is that "viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children." This conclusion was presented to Congress in July 2000 in a joint statement signed by six public health groups.
The merchants of violence market their products directly to children, mostly bypassing the parents. Have you seen ads for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or Outlaw Golf in any magazine that you normally read? By and large, video games are promoted in gaming magazines and on specialty Web sites that are avidly followed by kids. In Grand Theft Auto, players hijack police cars, gun down pedestrians, kill policemen, pick up prostitutes to get "health points" -- and then kill the prostitutes to get their money back. This game and its predecessor each sold a whopping 8 million copies. In the T-rated Outlaw Golf, "the best way to regain your composure is to give your loyal caddy a good punch in the stomach," says a review in happypuppy.com. Yet the reassuring face of Tiger Woods is still on the home page of the video game ratings board -- the Entertainment Software Review Board -- offering a public service announcement that urges parents to trust the ratings.
The cult of the Matrix pretends that there is deep spiritual meaning to the story. Yet the driving theme of the trilogy involves the Mother of All Battles (to save the Earth, of course), and "Matrix Reloaded" just treads water with vacuous dialogue and highly choreographed martial arts scenes. I shudder to think what kind of understanding of life kids will take into adulthood if we allow Tinseltown to market the ultra-violent "Matrix" to them as a spiritual epic.
Americans have decided not to market cigarettes, alcohol or pornography to minors. It's time we took the same public health position regarding children and media violence. Ultra-violent video games and movies should be marketed to adults only. Parents need clear labels on these "entertainment" products so that they know exactly what their content is. Labels could include information such as: "This game includes decapitations, eviscerations, shootings, bombings and other illegal acts."
Unlike the grim vision of reality offered to teens in "The Matrix" -- where pronouncements like "there is no choice" abound -- I believe we do have a choice. We can see these "murder simulators" for what they are, and we can urge our legislators to require truth-in-labeling for these products.
Daphne White is the founder and executive director of The Lion & Lamb Project, a national parents' organization that seeks to stop the marketing of violent entertainment to children.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company