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Rating Video Games:
A Cautionary Tale from a Harvard Study

You cant always judge a video game by its cover. Neither, alas, can you judge how much violence it contains based on its rating. Thats the conclusion reached by a pair of researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health who assessed all video games with an E for Everyone rating in April 2001.

At the heart of their findings lies this fact: Game creators are the ones who provide the content descriptors that are the basis of the ratings. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) relies on industry descriptions in developing its video game ratings, pegged to audience suitability.

Often, the manufacturers provide no descriptors at all. So the ESRB rating remains silent on the violence many games contain. But dont be misled. Absence of the v word is no indication that a game is violence-free, Dr. Kimberly Thompson and Kevin Haninger report. Here are the key findings of their assessment of the E-rated games:

  • Almost 60 percent contained no content description on or inside the game packaging.

  • Of those games with no content description, 64 percent nevertheless contained intentional violence during 30 percent of play time.

  • Sixty percent of all E-rated games rewarded or actually required players to injure characters in order to continue playing.

  • The presence of cute characters had little or no bearing on the presence of violence.

 From Violence in E-Rated Video Games, The Journal of the American Medical Association, August 1, 2001Vol. 286, No. 5.

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