Violence in Teen-Rated Video Games

Kevin Haninger; M. Seamus Ryan; Kimberly M. Thompson, MS, ScD

In This Article


This study demonstrates quantitatively that T-rated video games contain a significant amount of violence, injury, and death. Given the large amount of violence involving guns and knives, the relative lack of blood seems surprising and suggests that many T-rated video games do not realistically portray the consequences of violence. However, as video game consoles evolve with more powerful graphics, T-rated video games have the ability to portray violence and suffering more realistically. We expect this trend to continue and that it will present challenges for content analyses and for the ESRB, which no longer uses the word "realistic" in content descriptors (eg, Realistic Violence, Realistic Blood).

Research that provides insight into the cognitive effects of video games on children of different levels of development should help determine the need to characterize the realism in video games. In particular, research related to when children distinguish between fantasy and reality[21,22] represents a priority, along with studies about what other media and social factors affect their development.[23,24] Researchers should also further study what children learn from video games and whether this learning changes their behavior, attitudes, and beliefs, while recognizing that understanding something as not real does not necessarily negate effects.[25]

Given the wide variation in the amount and portrayal of violence in T-rated video games, the ESRB content descriptors could provide more information about violence. The ESRB recently added new content descriptors for the type of violence (ie, Cartoon Violence, Fantasy Violence, Sexual Violence) and degree (ie, Intense Violence), and we expect that these content descriptors may give more detail about violence in video games provided that the ESRB uses them consistently. Despite the addition of these content descriptors, the significant amount of violence in T-rated video games raises important questions about the age-appropriateness of interactive violence, as well as what criteria the ESRB uses to distinguish T-rated and M-rated video games.

The same important limitations exist in this study as in our prior study of T-rated video games.[14] The change in our methods of allowing the game player to familiarize himself with each game prior to recording and of including the game introduction and set up in recorded game play may have slightly reduced the amount of violence that we observed per hour in T-rated video games compared with the method we used to study E-rated video games, for 2 reasons. First, a more familiar game player may die or be injured less frequently and may need to spend relatively less time committing acts of violence to advance in the game. Second, including the game introduction and set up may record some nonviolent game play associated with viewing film clips, character introductions, and game menus. We see some evidence of these effects since we measured a smaller percentage of violent game play in the T-rated video game Nuclear Strike in this study than we did in the E-rated video game Nuclear Strike 64.[13]

Given our effort to play 9 additional newer video games, we note that the continual evolution of video games and the ESRB rating system suggest the need for researchers who conduct future studies to consider using a rolling enrollment process that randomly samples new games. We did not evaluate successive video games in a single series to look at time trends, but improvements in the graphic capabilities of consoles and the increased interactivity of online video games suggest the need for future studies to explore trends in content. In addition, the fact that players can use codes (often well known and available on the Internet) to access content that would not otherwise occur in the game or that the player would not otherwise access as quickly or at all suggests the need for some consideration of the potential for codes to alter the gaming experience from what would be indicated by the ESRB rating and content descriptors. For example, in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, the player can enter a code to unlock film clips and characters that otherwise appear much later in the game, including the material we noted in Table 6 .

Our findings suggest that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should continue to examine the complex challenges regarding the cross-marketing of violent entertainment to children.[3,4] We noted that the T-rated video game Enter the Matrix was marketed as an integral part of the R-rated Matrix films.[19,26] According to the game Web site, "The [filmmakers] wrote the game's story and script, breaking new ground in how Hollywood works with game developers. They collaborated on all game design elements and outlined all of the action moments in the game in true Matrix style, as well as personally directed new, never-before-seen 35mm film footage for the game, featuring the same actors, sets, costumes and effects used in The Matrix: Reloaded."[26] Based on our play of Enter the Matrix, which involved a significant amount of graphic violence and killing of law enforcement officers, and the intimate connections between the video game and the R-rated films, we expected an M-rating on the video game. While the game artificially contains no blood and consequently appears similar in this respect to other violent T-rated video games, the connection of this game to an R-rated film and the cross-marketing evidenced by the $3 rebate raise questions about the M-rating. Cross-marketing appears to be an increasing trend, as indicated by release of the R-rated DVD and T-rated video game Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and by the television advertisement and game Web site, which emphasize that the video game contains more than 6 minutes of original film footage not included in the theatrical release and that players can assume the role of the lead character as they play.[27,28] We also noted recent copromotion of the PG-rated film The Haunted Mansion and the T-rated video game The Haunted Mansion,[29,30] which provides an example of cross-marketing in which the film received a relatively lower age-based rating than the video game (ie, PG, not PG-13 film, and T-rated video game). Finally, our observations of both an adult film star in a T-rated video game and a game containing music from albums that received Parental Advisory Labels ( Table 6 ) also suggest that the FTC should seriously consider cross-marketing issues related to both violent and nonviolent content.

While we remain uncertain about the ability to create a universal media rating system given the very different nature of interactive and noninteractive media, we see the convergence of media and cross-marketing issues as presenting major challenges to parents and rating boards. We believe our findings suggest that a significant research effort should be undertaken to explore the development and creation of a universal media rating system. We recognize that the academic community might bring important analytical rigor to the discussion about media content and ratings, and that ultimately a single system would probably provide the simplest tool for parents, if one can be designed and effectively implemented.

This study provides important and useful information to parents and physicians about violence in T-rated video games. Unfortunately, the limited data that exist on parental supervision of media suggests that parents are less likely to supervise video games than other entertainment media.[31] We emphasize that parents whose children play video games should actively participate in game selection and engage their children in discussions of game content, since while researchers continue to study the effects of violent entertainment on children, parents and caregivers continue to be the primary mediators of any effects. Physicians must play an active role in engaging parents and children to critically consume media and to pay attention to what the media teach.


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