“81% of a random sample of Mature-rated video games included content that was not noted on the game box.” So declares the press release crowing about findings of a study led by Associate Professor Kimberly Thompson of the Kids Risk Project at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). ”Study Finds M-Rated Video Games Contain Violence, Sexual Themes, Substances, and Profanity Not Labeled on Game Boxes, press release of Monday, April 03, 2006, Harvard School of Public Health.” Yes, 81% of the games rated “M” (for “mature”, as in “hey folks, this is something you may not want your kids to play with before you’ve taken a closer look”), had content that was not mentioned in the rating description.
They accomplished this feat by hiring one “gamer” to play the games for an hour. No, they did not consider how kids – much less “mature” audiences for which the games are intended – play the games. They faked it. And then they chastise those that took the trouble of rating the game and warned parents to be alert.
It’s a good thing they didn’t decide to study what percentage of beers have more alcohol than is stated on the label – and hired a student to go bar-hopping to collect the research. Sure, at the end of the day (or after the hangover the next morning), they might be able to publish how many beers failed to state or under-stated the alcohol content, and warn parents that they should be on the lookout when their kids go drinking, because you can’t be sure whether a beer stating 4.5% actually contained 4.6% alcohol.
In the early days, the game industry was chastised for lack of ratings. Anyone and everyone was free to rate games, of course, but they preferred to criticize others for not doing so. Even the Harvard School of Public Health could have done so – it seems to have plenty of resources to play them and pass judgment. But no, critics, including vocal members of Congress, wanted the industry to do it.
Once the industry implemented a pretty successful rating program, critics browbeat them for not being sufficiently accurate. Again, HSPH is free to develop a competing rating system, but no, it’s easier to criticize the one organization doing something.
They save their most serious criticism for not accurately telling children the stuff that is on computer games that have been flagged for mature audiences rather than children. And what is this content that has them so upset? Mostly violence. Fake violence. Pretend violence. Perhaps if I had been immersed in mature video games as a kid, that other kid never would have hit me in the face with a rock, I would not have bloodied that other kid’s nose with an apple, nor hit my sister over the head with a bongo drum, nor would I have received those stitches in my forehead when I collided with another kid during horseplay – real, actual, violent horseplay. But now we know, thanks to Harvard, that those games parents have been warned may be unsuitable for their children may contain something else that makes the game, well, maybe, also unsuitable for their children.
I guess if you warn a kid not to play with matches, you need to correctly specify how many matches are in the box.
What bothers me the most is that the concern over the content of video games is a concern over what kids themselves may do with them. Because a game may “allow” a player to make the character it controls keep kicking another character after they are down, we condemn the game makers. Those clips they like to show up on Capitol Hill during one of their too many hearings invariably are the product of some gamer purposely showing just how mean, nasty and disgusting you can make your character appear – they don’t show real kids having a really good time. Much less real adults, who tend to enjoy mature games too. And much, much less adults who enjoy playing them with their kids.
But I stray from my point, which is that getting all riled up about what a game is capable of letting the player do is sort of like blaming Crayola for making crayons with which kids are capable of drawing dirty pictures.
Freedom of expression is just as much about the freedom of a kid to decide whether to draw a dirty picture, or whether to make the game character hit another one over the head with a barrel.
The First Amendment protects Harvard’s right to publish this “study”, but it also protects Harvard’s right to step up and say what it thinks about the appropriateness of any video game for any age person without regard to what the rating may be. The First Amendment used to mean that the cure for speech we don’t like is more speech. Too often, those charged with educating us would rather squander their own free speech opportunities by criticizing the well-intended free speech of others instead of coming up with their own original contributions. Like those who enjoy making loud derisive remarks during someone else’s public performance, those who lack the will or the talent to effectively engage in their own free speech tend to take the path of least resistance by booing the speech of others.