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STANFORD -- When Santa and Grandma go shopping for computer games this Christmas, they'll soon find explicit warnings on some about violence, nudity, sex or rough language.
Like food labels, many new computer game packages will give consumers information about the ingredients inside, rather than merely rating the games as appropriate for specific age groups. Thus, if Grandma is more concerned about Roadrunner dropping an anvil on Wile E. Coyote's head than about Little Mermaid showing cleavage, she can find information on the package that will allow her to pick a game that meets her standard.
The new five-level rating system for computer software is the first one in the entertainment industry to disclose fully the basis for its ratings and to provide specific information to consumers about what's inside the package, said Stanford communication Professor Donald Roberts, who helped devise the system for four associations of software publishers. Roberts expects the ratings to influence the purchasing decisions of young children and adults buying for children although perhaps not teenagers buying games for themselves.
The computer game industry was under pressure from Congress to come up with a voluntary rating system by the Christmas shopping season or face government regulation next year. (As of late November, most games in one large San Francisco Bay Area store did not yet have rating labels, but a spokesman for the Software Publishers Association said they would be showing up in the stores as old versions of the games are sold out.)
"The pressure came mostly because of arcade games, particularly a game called Mortal Kombat, which is very bloody and gory," Roberts said. "In Mortal Kombat, you rip off your opponent's head, the blood flies and you hold up the head, dangling the spinal column."
Many people warned Roberts that it would be impossible to devise an objective entertainment rating system, but he worked with two members of the industry on just such a system. "We decided we wanted a system that would permit consumers, game publishers and Congress members to know exactly why a particular product got the rating it did," Roberts said.
"There is no way everyone is going to like all of our ratings decisions," he added, "but the difference between this system and others is that it's the only one that lets you explore why you don't like it."
Because it's open to public perusal, "consumers can make their own judgments when they buy, and fire away [complaints to a public rating board] if they find one of our ratings too strict or not strict enough," Roberts said. "We fully expect modifications to occur every year."
The new system applies only to software games that run on computers, not to the so-called video or arcade games that run on hardware made specifically for playing games. Representatives of the video/arcade game industry (such as Nintendo and Sega brand systems) also have created a new rating system, which hires raters to rate games by their appropriateness for different age groups, similar to the Motion Picture Association of America's system for rating movies, Roberts said.
Roberts, who has spent two decades studying how violence in the media affects children, said: “The scientific evidence is quite clear that some - some - proportion of aggressive and violent behavior in kids in our country can be attributed to violence in the media.
"Getting rid of violence in the media will not get rid of violence in the society, but we ought to be a lot more thoughtful about what we portray," he said. "There's no question in my mind that the only motivating force in most shows is dollars, and the social implications of what is being done is seldom considered."
While older teenagers and adults may continue to buy entertainment because of the violence, Roberts said there is some evidence that warning and information labels deter purchase of violent or sexually explicit material by younger children. One study of record purchases, he said, found that warning labels deterred purchases by 10- and 11-year-olds.
"The primary goal [of information labels] is to help parents monitor even younger children's behavior," Roberts said, "because 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds ask for these games."
Age-rated labeling systems, particularly those that don't publish their ratings criteria, do not work well at either curbing media excesses or informing parents about content, Roberts said. The problem is compounded because Americans have sharply differing opinions about what is appropriate for children. When interviewing parents this summer, Roberts found that even spouses disagree on what is appropriate entertainment for their children.
"Consider the motion picture industry's rating system. They keep their ratings criteria confidential and simply say, 'We think this picture is right for this age or that age.' If you are a parent, all you really know is that somebody thinks a PG-13 movie might not be appropriate for some younger children - but you don't know why. Will you see no bare breasts but a lot of killing? Will you see bare breasts but no killing? About the only way to find out is to go to the movie."
In contrast, the new computer game rating system required its designers to be specific about the judgments they were making, whether they were based on research or just their seat-of-the-pants understanding of American cultural standards.
"We discussed specific shows and games, then tried to write definitions that would rate them as we felt people in general would rate them," Roberts said. "Then we talked to more people, thought of more examples, and went back to rewrite our definitions again and again."
Roberts would have preferred to test the new standards on a random sample of parents, but said "there was no time to get it done before the congressional deadline."
The result is a yes/no content questionnaire that each software developer must fill out to have products assigned a rating by the new Recreational Software Advisory Council, an independent board that will include industry representatives as well as parents, pediatricians and other experts on children. Large retailers have put pressure on game publishers by telling them they won't stock unrated games. The council, funded by fees charged to producers of each game rated, will review some games at random and take public complaints, penalizing any publishers who misrepresent a game's content.
"It can take 100 hours to open all the secret rooms in a computer game, so there is no way an independent reviewer can thoroughly review each game before it goes on the market," Roberts said, "but the public system and penalties give the game makers incentives to be honest in answering the questions about their game." Penalties could range from removal of mislabeled games from store shelves to monetary fines based on the number of games sold.
On the product packages, the five-level rating system is displayed as a thermometer with four temperature levels above an "all" rating.
"All" means the game has been deemed suitable for all audiences, according to the published definitions in the rating system. Temperature level 1 means it has content - such as the Little Mermaid's cleavage or Wile E. Coyote disappearing in a "poof" of smoke - that some people might find objectionable for some children. The type of material that caused the product to get a level 1 rating is also listed on the label.
A temperature level 4 rating applies to titles with "gratuitous violence with blood and gore" or video sex that is normally rated X in motion pictures, Roberts said. All these terms are specifically defined and available to the public.
"You won't find much computer software at our highest rating level," Roberts said, "although that could change with the coming days of CD-ROM technology. We are not far away from the time when any motion picture can be displayed on a computer, and the game will be for you to fight Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator.
"Many existing computer recreational games are war-type, aggressive action games," Roberts said, "with a large proportion sold to adult males. However, many educational titles also offer game formats, and most of those are expected to achieve 'all' ratings.”
The games are rated for their violent content on five dimensions, Roberts said, including the nature of the violence itself, the nature of the victim or target of it, the passive or threatening stance of the victim, the audio and video portrayal of the damage done and whether the player of the game is rewarded for killing or destroying characters in the game. Research indicates that rewarding people for carrying out an attack increases the probability that they will imitate the behavior later.
"We say it is more violent to kill and destroy than to injure and it is more violent to injure than to attack with no apparent consequences," Roberts said. "It's also more violent to attack a non-threatening victim, and it is worse to kill a human or Bugs Bunny than a deer. It's also worse to kill a deer than to smash an empty car."
Bugs Bunny is a "humanoid," whereas a deer that doesn't talk or display other human characteristics is an animal, according to the rating system. "There are people who will be unhappy that we say it's worse to kill a human than an animal," Roberts said, "but they will have adequate information on the label to ignore our rating levels and use their own judgment."
Some people, he said, may not think animated or comic violence counts as violence while others will think it is equally bad, he said. "I've heard parents argue over whether Wile E. Coyote [cartoons] should be rated as violent."
The raters opted to treat animation in the same way as live- action portrayals, he said, because "the research literature tells us that a child learns every bit as well from an animated show. Indeed, a young child probably learns better from an animated show because it directs the child's attention to two or three characters and a particular action" with less distracting information such as detailed settings.
After talking with parents, Roberts and the other two authors of the rating system decided that strategy games, such as chess and Risk, should not be rated as violent, nor should educational games that use action to maintain children's interest.
"In chess, the knight kills the bishop, but in talking to people, we found that this isn't the sort of game parents want rated for violence," he said.
Another example of violence no one seemed to want rated occurs in educational games such as Math Rescue.
"The child is supposed to grab numbers and put them together to make answers to problems. There are little pink creatures called Gruzzles that run across the screen and try to steal numbers before the child can get to them. When the Gruzzle gets close, the child points at it, and Benny Bookworm appears and pours slime on it, which immobilizes the Gruzzle until the child can get the number," Roberts said.
"Our decision was that sliming a Gruzzle is not really violence or aggression. We call this type of action 'benevolent immobilization,' and find it suitable for an 'all' rating."
On nudity and sex, the ratings designers decided they had to rate partial nudity although they feared parents would object if the system meant that Little Mermaid received a level 1 rating for partial nudity. The popular animated character displays substantial cleavage.
"I talked to a half dozen parents about the Little Mermaid, and they all said that it should be at least a 1 - that the show had generated more questions about anatomy than any other they had shown their child."
Language was particularly problematic to rate, Roberts said, because word usage is constantly evolving. Ultimately, the raters decided slang that a "reasonable person" found inoffensive would be eligible for an "all” rating. Language with "mild terms for body functions" would be permitted at level 1; expletives and non-sexual anatomical references would be permitted at level 2; strong language and obscene gestures at level 3; and explicit sexual language and crude references to intercourse or genitalia would require a level 4 rating. The labels will specify the type of language content if the product does not earn an "all" rating.
The system is bound to have critics, Roberts said, especially among advocacy groups who believe their own definitions are preferable to other people's.
Although most people can agree they are opposed to wanton, gratuitous violence such as that in Mortal Kombat, he said, there is "a large fuzzy area" between that and sliming a Gruzzle.
"We have little or no systematic research on what people perceive as violence," he said. He has found that "for some people, it's not violence if it's animated. For others, it's not violence if the victim doesn't scream. For others - highly competitive athletes, for example - it's not violence if it's competitive."
When systematic research is done, Roberts said, he expects to find some "common dimensions" of violence upon which most people agree. Still, he said, he would be surprised if there were not also "huge differences" among groups of people based on their age, gender and local cultural environment.
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