A controversial media watch group has released its 13th annual report on the state of the video games industry, handing out three As, a single B+, and one nebulous "I" for "Incomplete." Whose homework was gobbled by the dog? Parents, it seems, who received the incomplete in "parental involvement." I guess that's the National Institute on Media and the Family's tongue-in-cheek way of saying "Parents, thy work is never done."
The report card summary:
ESRB Ratings: A
The addition of ratings summaries is yet another step forward in the growing list of improvements that the ESRB has made in recent years.
ESRB Ratings Education: A
We commend the ESRB for intensifying efforts to help parents understand the video game ratings. The ESRB has become the entertainment industry leader in educating retailers and parents about the rating system.
Retailer Ratings Enforcement: B+
The 80 percent enforcement rate shows significant progress with still some room for improvement.
Gaming Console Manufacturers: A
Parental controls, timing devices and parent education efforts are all major improvements giving parents more tools to supervise game play.
Parental Involvement: Incomplete
The focus of this year’s report card is providing parents with the information they need. All segments of the industry have made significant improvements in recent years. Parents now have more information and tools than ever before. However, the constant changes present new challenges. Parents need to pay more attention to the amount of time and the types of games their kids play. The parent guide section in this report card is intended to motivate and equip parents to do this.
For all the seeming good news here, you'll want to be mindful of some issues with the report:
It isn't scientific. The National Institute on Media and the Family may have score-explaining research data tucked away somewhere, but not in this report. Do I think the ESRB has improved its ratings? Sure. That console manufacturers are providing better tools to regulate content? Yep. That retailers have cracked down on ratings enforcement? Of course, but only because other studies have suggested as much. The report's "research citations and resources"? Mostly news dailies and at least one tabloid-style blog. That's fine for water cooler conversation, but not for parenting guides that purport to be authoritative.
The game lists are flawed. Grand Theft Auto IV makes the NIMF's "games to avoid" list, whereas Spider-Man: Web of Shadows gets the report's "great games for kids" blessing. Sounds about right, right? Maybe, but in Grand Theft Auto IV, players are generally punished for behaving violently. Whip out your baseball bats and semiautomatics and blaze away at random passerby and you'll often end up quashing missions or complicating progress because you just invoked a SWAT-style smack-down. In Web of Shadows, by contrast, you can heave one or two ton vehicles at innocent bystanders while the cops stand by like blank-faced spectators. You're actually enticed to harm citizens at times so you can snap them out of exploding vehicles or swing them over to hospitals to quickly satisfy quotas. I've committed far more depraved acts in Web of Shadows than Grand Theft Auto IV, if throwing hundreds of cars and eradicating thousands of innocent citizens counts as unprincipled. (I'm not saying either game is or isn't kid-safe, just pointing out a gaping logic hole in the way games are critiqued and categorized.)
The Pediatrics study referred to in the "reseach update" is academically disputed. See my two-part interview (one, two) with Texas A&M psychology professor Christopher Ferguson for background on the Pediatrics study and a taste of just one of several alternative academic takes on the issue. I have no problem with Doug Gentile's even-toned summary of his colleagues' academic study, but including it and nothing from other respected researchers who happen to disagree on scientific principles makes the NIMF report look academically lopsided.
The NIMF recently accepted $50,000 from the Entertainment Software Association. Isn't that a conflict of interest? GamePolitics thinks so. I do too. It's axiomatic: You can't take money from the very industry you're supposed to be watchdogging. With all due respect to either group, shame on both the NIMF and ESA for muddying the water here.
That said, the actual tone of the study is generally even-handed. Hyperbole is pleasingly absent. If you just want a reasonable summary of some of the most salient developments in the industry per 2008 such as who's playing games these days, how old are they, what gender, etc., it's a helpful essentially accurate read as long as you're willing to dive deeper and read further elsewhere before making actionable decisions.
What's an actionable decision? I'll go with Harvard researcher Cheryl Olson (co-author of Grand Theft Childhood) when she said in a phone interview "a lot of it's just common sense." Pay attention to what your kids are playing. Pay attention to studies like the ones coming out of Iowa State, then pay attention to the ones that come to different conclusions. Learn about them. Listen to them. Then make up your own mind.