Game Report Card
David Walsh, Ph.D.; Douglas Gentile,
Ph.D.; Marilyn VanOverbeke;
Emily Chasco (intern)
National Institute on Media and the Family
December 19, 2002
This MediaWise Video Game Report Card is the
seventh issued by the National Institute on Media
and the Family, an independent, non-partisan,
non-sectarian, non-profit organization. The Report
Card provides a snapshot of the interactive gaming
industry with a focus on issues related to child
"The games of a people
reveal a great deal about them."
Year after year, the electronic
gaming industry sees dynamic changes and continued
growth. This certainly held true in 2002. Industry
analysts predict that worldwide sales this year
could exceed $20 billion demonstrating that the
industry is all but immune to the economic recession.
On-line gaming continues to grow by 50 percent
a year. On-line gaming parlors, popular in Korea
and Japan, are beginning to appear in American
cities. As game graphics and imagery get ever
closer to motion picture quality, the games become
more realistic, exciting, and attractive to young
players. More children and youth are playing than
ever before. Ninety-two percent of youngsters
ages 2-17 now play video or computer games.
While the industry is making the
same efforts to protect children it has over the
past few years, research and anecdotal evidence
show that the potential for harm from video games
is much greater than previously understood. Increasing
power (i.e., realism) of technology is one factor;
our increased knowledge base is another. Despite
some commitment to implementing our past recommendations,
the industry is slipping backwards by standing
still. Against this backdrop is an increasingly
appalling attitude toward women--this issue, more
than any other, exposes an industry willing to
make money by continuing to push the envelope.
A Dark Cloud Descends Over the
The best selling games of the past
year glorify and reward extreme violence, particularly
toward women. While these games are rated M (Mature),
they are extremely popular with pre-teen and teenage
boys who report no trouble buying the games.
For the past seven years, we have
consistently expressed concern about a subset
of very violent games called "first person
shooters." In these games the player advances
in the game by killing. Even more disturbing this
year is the fact that the best selling games of
the past twelve months are not only ultra-violent,
but feature brutal violence toward women. In addition,
a growing number of non-violent games like BMX
XXX degrade women and reinforce dangerous
stereotypes by treating them as sexual objects.
Indicative of this problem is the
fact that a major retailer, Zany Brainy, announced
on November 26, 2002 that it was pulling all video
games off the shelves of its 170 stores. A spokesperson
for FAO, the parent company of Zany Brainy was
quoted as saying, "We didn't carry any of
the games with violence, and it seemed to us that
those are the most popular games and the games
that the industry was focusing on." (Emphasis
Almost all video games are designed
and produced by men. Many games appear to reflect
young male fantasies. It is very disturbing that
the most popular games reflect a violent and misogynist
attitude toward girls and women or treat girls
and women as sexual playthings.
Though this problem is not new, it is accelerating.
Several years ago we alerted parents about Duke
Nukem, a game in which the player enters a
room where naked women are tied to posts pleading
with the gamer (as Duke), "Kill me. Kill
me." In Grand Theft Auto 3 (GTA 3),
the top selling game of the past year, the player
is rewarded if he murders a prostitute after having
sex with her. However, the trend has reached truly
alarming levels with Grand Theft Auto: Vice
Building on the incredible financial
success of Grand Theft Auto 3, the latest
edition, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was
released on October 21, 2002. Over 1.4 million
copies were sold in two days making it the fastest
sales start for a video game in the thirty-year
history of the industry. It could become the top
selling game ever. Experts predict that Grand
Theft Auto: Vice City will sell 10 million
copies grossing almost a half billion dollars.
By comparison, Pokemon, a phenomenon in
its own right, only sold 5.1 million copies. In
addition to building on its predecessor's impressive
sales figures, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
picks up where GTA 3 left off with violence
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
is receiving rave reviews for its technical excellence.
However, its portrayal and mistreatment of women
is disturbing. The brutal murder of women as entertainment
is cause for great concern. Parents of both boys
and girls should be very alarmed by the following:
- Every day millions of boys and young men
are entertaining themselves with a game that
denigrates women and glamorizes violence against
them. The theory that it is a game that only
adults are playing is simply not valid. Our
recent survey of boys showed that it is extremely
popular with pre-teen and teen males.
- Parents and other adults are almost totally
unaware of the content of the game. We have
surveyed over 600 parents and teachers over
the past month and less than 3 percent have
any knowledge of the anti-female content of
- Studies of exposure to sexual violence (e.g.,
Linz & Donnerstein, & Penrod, 1988;
Mullin & Linz, 1995; Strasburger &
Wilson, 2002) suggest that watching even short
amounts of sexual violence can desensitize
viewers to it. For example, in an experimental
study, viewers of films including sexual violence
expressed significantly less sympathy for
domestic violence victims, and rated their
injuries as less severe, than did a no-exposure
comparison group (Mullin & Linz, 1995).
Other Areas Covered in the 2002
- Accuracy of the ratings.
- Ratings education.
- Retail ratings enforcement.
- Research update.
- Overall grade.
- List of recommended games and games to avoid.
The Entertainment Software Rating
Board (ESRB) has announced it will undertake a
review of its current ratings system in early
2003. Due to growing concerns about the current
ratings, we applaud that decision. It is well
known within the industry that a very violent
game can receive a T (teen rating) by simply removing
the red pixels indicating blood. The U.S. Army
received a T rating for its controversial America's
Army in this manner. Incomprehensibly, BMX
XXX did not receive an AO (adults only) rating
despite involving scenes of topless strippers.
The industry has made important
steps in the last few years to accurately rate
all games. However, it is disturbing to see that
some of the most popular games with adult themes
are inappropriately deemed suitable for younger
Grade for ratings accuracy
We conducted a telephone survey
of 40 video game rental or retail stores in large
and small cities throughout 12 states. Of the
40 stores, 19 primarily sell computer and video
games, 19 primarily rent, and two sell and rent
about equally. Half (50 percent) of the stores
surveyed are part of a chain of stores.
Forty-seven percent of the stores
say they educate the public about the ESRB rating
system (up from 37 percent in 2001). However,
when the manner in which they educate the public
is scrutinized, the actual level of public education
is about 42 percent of stores. This is up from
33 percent in 2001. In these stores, ratings education
was typically conveyed by signs or posters in
the stores, listings on the aisles, or displays
Stores that are part of chains are
more likely to educate the public about the ESRB
ratings (55 percent of chain stores compared to
32 percent of independent stores). Stores that
primarily rent video and computer games are slightly
more likely to have policies for educating the
public about the ratings compared to stores that
primarily sell games (47 percent and 42 percent,
Disappointingly, the percentage
of employees we surveyed who personally understand
the ratings actually declined from 88 percent
in 2001 to 77 percent this year. Additionally,
the percentage of stores training their employees
on ratings fell from 51 percent in 2001 to 32
percent in 2002.
Grade for ratings education
Policies about Ratings
Only about two-thirds (70 percent) of stores have
a policy preventing children younger than 17 from
renting or buying games rated M. This does not
represent any improvement over previous years
(75 percent in 2001 and 68 percent in 2000). We
had children between the ages of 7 and 14 make
26 attempts to purchase M-rated games. From this
"sting" operation, we find that stores
only enforce their ratings policies about one-half
of the time (54 percent).
Stores that are part of chains are
more likely to have policies preventing children
from renting or buying M-rated games (75 percent
of chain stores compared to 63 percent of independent
Stores that primarily rent video
and computer games are more likely to have policies
preventing children younger than 17 from renting
or buying games rated M compared to stores that
primarily sell games (89 percent and 47 percent
Despite repeated pleas for an effective
system, enforcement is still dismal.
Grade for ratings enforcement by
While we understand there are independent
sectors in the gaming industry, the overall grade
provides a snapshot of the entire gaming field
as it relates to child welfare issues. This year's
grade reflects the dramatic increase in violent
games and, in particular, games rewarding violence
against women. Additional issues influencing this
grade include questionable ratings, the growing
problem of game addiction, and the continued ease
with which children and youth purchase or rent
adult games. The diversity of these issues touches
nearly every sector of the industry. While we
acknowledge an encouraging new trend in family
friendly games, the overall grade is intended
as a wake-up call to the industry, retailers,
and parents about very disturbing trends that
accelerated during 2002.
- The industry must make a real commitment,
beyond its traditional lip service to keeping
games intended for adults out of the hands
of children and youth. Profiting from selling
children interactive technology that depicts
sexual and other serious crimes while claiming
to be makers of wholesome entertainment is
unacceptable and parents must not stand for
- The ESRB is responding to critiques of
its rating system by undertaking a review
in 2003. We support that effort and recommend
that the ESRB take the lead in creating an
independently administered universal rating
system that could be used by the game, film,
and television industries. Eighty-four percent
of parents support the creation of such a
- Microsoft has agreed to install parental
controls on the X Box console. We call upon
Sony and Nintendo to do the same.
- Retail and rental stores that have committed
to policies preventing the sale or rental
of adult games to children and teens should
actively enforce these policies.
- Retail chains and independent stores that
have refused to restrict access to adult games
should put an enforceable policy in place,
a change supported by 92 percent of parents.
- Parents need to become more knowledgeable
of content and exert greater supervision over
the games their children are playing.
- The industry should continue efforts to
educate the public about game ratings.
- The Advertising Review Council should continue
to enforce guidelines for marketing and advertising.
The research on the effects of exposure
to violent video and computer games continues
to suggest that concern is clearly warranted.
As we reported last year, Anderson & Bushman
(2001) showed a consistent pattern of results
across 35 different studies of video games: exposure
to violent games increased aggressive thoughts
in children and adults, as well as aggressive
feelings, physiological arousal, and aggressive
Brain research reported by Dr. Vincent
P. Mathews of the University of Indiana Medical
School on December 2, 2002 showed that playing
violent video games resulted in less activity
in the section of the brain controlling emotional
impulses (RSNA, 2002). The effect was most pronounced
with at-risk teens diagnosed with disruptive behavior
disorder (DBD). Dr. Mathews told attendees at
the 88th Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting
of the Radiological Society of North America,
"this information gives credence to what
has become a growing concern about what is perceived
as increased violence among adolescents."
Dr. Mathews' findings may help explain the results
of our research with 607 8th and 9th grade students.
We found that both the amount and content of play
matter (Gentile, Lynch, Linder, & Walsh, 2002).
Students who were exposed to more violent games
were more likely to get into physical fights.
It should be noted that this effect held not only
for children predisposed to hostile behavior,
but also for the least hostile children. Surprisingly,
the least hostile children who played the most
violent video games were more likely to get into
physical fights than the most hostile children
who did not play many violent video games. In
addition, students who played video games more
extensively each day received lower grades in
In our study of more than 200 3rd
to 5th graders, we found that physical aggression
and low school performance are not the only reasons
for concern about exposure to violent video and
computer games. Children who played more violent
video games were more likely to be described by
their peers and teachers as mean and rude (Buchanan,
Gentile, Nelson, Walsh, & Hensel, 2002). While
boys were more likely to play violent video games
than girls, both boys and girls who played violent
video games were more likely to show what are
known as "relationally aggressive" behaviors.
Taken together, these studies suggest
that both the amount and content of video games
should be important considerations for parents.
In last year's report card we raised
the issue of compulsive game playing as an emerging
problem. This year that issue drew additional
attention via a series of tragedies involving
compulsive game playing. A 24-year-old South Korean
man died after playing computer games nonstop
for 86 hours (Associated Press, 2002). A 30-year-old
man died after seizures brought on by playing
video games for approximately 48 hours a week
(Middleton, 2002). A 21-year-old man committed
suicide after playing the online video game EverQuest
nonstop for 36 hours (Miller, 2002). While
these examples are extreme cases, they illustrate
a very real and growing concern regarding video
game addiction. In a study of approximately 4,000
EverQuest (EQ) players, over half (62 percent)
said they would consider themselves addicted to
EQ (Yee, 2001). This study gathered many quotes
from EQ players, two of which are reproduced below:
30 years old, almost 31, and I'm a registered
nurse. I take care of terminally ill patients,
and I'm an EQ addict. I hate this game, but
I can't stop playing. Quitting smoking was NEVER
this hard." [f,30]
"Yes, I consider myself
addicted to EQ. I haven't tried quitting yet,
but I will have to in a few months. I don't
spend enough time with my 2- year-old daughter.
I'm a full-time mom, and my daughter watches
TV all day while I play the game. " [f,
Clearly these adults consider themselves
addicted. The question becomes whether we can
see these types of addictive behaviors starting
earlier in children's video game play. Estimates
of the numbers of addicted children and adolescents
vary, but studies are beginning to show patterns
of play behaviors that are similar to other addictions.
In a study of 387 12- to 16-year-olds, 20 percent
were classified as currently addicted to playing
computer-based video games, and one in four adolescents
had been addicted at some point in their lives
(Griffiths & Hunt, 1998). Boys were more likely
to be addicted, and addicted players were more
likely to have begun playing video games at younger
ages. Interestingly, children themselves appear
to be aware of the danger of video game "addiction."
When asked to name the bad things about computer
games, teens' number one response was that they
were addictive (Griffiths & Hunt, 1998).
In our study of 607 8th and 9th
graders, 20 percent of game players said they
had felt like they were addicted to video games,
30 percent said their parents tell them they play
video games too much, and 40 percent said they
have friends they would call "addicted"
to video games. This spring we expect more results
regarding addiction, but some preliminary analyses
suggest that addictive patterns correlate with
a number of negative outcomes for adolescents.
Eighth and ninth grade students who exhibit symptoms
of compulsive play also:
- have been playing video games for more years
- watch more television each week
- play more video games each week
- prefer more violence in their video games
- like more violence in their video games
now than they did 2 or 3 years ago
- are more hostile
- see the world as a meaner place
- get into arguments with their teachers more
- are more likely to have been involved in
physical fights in the previous year
- participate in fewer extracurricular activities
- receive poorer grades in school
The research on video game addiction
is still just beginning. However, these early
results suggest concern is justified. The results
also suggest a possible vicious circle of influence.
Children who are more likely to become addicted
to video games play more often and are exposed
to more violent content (Griffiths & Dancaster,
1995). Increase in playing time results in poorer
school performance and fewer extracurricular skill-building
activities. The increase in exposure to violent
content increases aggressive thoughts, feelings,
and behaviors (Anderson & Bushman, 2001).
Substandard academic and social skills are likely
to result in increased frustration with school
and peers, and may result in further increases
in video game play, continuing the cycle.
MediaWise Video Game
Accuracy of Ratings
Retail Enforcement of Ratings
Video Game Report Card
| Game Lists:
|Parent Alert! Games to avoid
for your children.
1. BMX XXX
2. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
3. Dead to Rights
5. Run Like Hell
6. Hunter the Reckoning
7. Hitman 2
8. Resident Evil 0
9. Time Splitters
|Positive games for children.
1. Animal Crossing
2. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
3. Super Mario World: Super Mario Advance
4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
5. Rollercoaster Tycoon
6. Mario Party 4
7. I Spy Challenger
8. Ty the Tasmanian Tiger
9. Yoshi's Island
10. Blinx: The Time Sweeper
Anderson, C. A., & Bushman,
B. J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on
aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive
affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior:
A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature.
Psychological Science, 12, 353-359.
Associated Press. (2002, October
10). Man dies after playing computer games
non-stop. Accessed October 21, 2002 at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/10/10/1034061260831.html
Buchanan, A. M., Gentile, D. A.,
Nelson, D., Walsh, D. A., & Hensel, J. (2002,
August). What goes in must come out: Children's
media violence consumption at home and aggressive
behaviors at school. Paper presented at the International
Society for the Study of Behavioural Development
Conference, Ottawa, Ontario.
Gentile, D. A., Lynch, P. J., Linder,
J. R., & Walsh, D. A. (2002, under review).
The effects of violent video game habits on adolescent
hostility, aggressive behaviors, and school performance.
Griffiths, M. D., & Dancaster,
I. (1995). The effect of Type A personality on
physiological arousal while playing computer games.
Addictive Behaviors, 20(4), 543-548.
Griffiths, M. D., & Hunt, N.
(1998). Dependence on computer games by adolescents.
Psychological Reports, 82, 475-480.
Linz, D. G., Donnerstein, E., &
Penrod, S. (1988). Effects of long-term exposure
to violent and sexually degrading depictions of
women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
Middleton, J. (2002, February 27).
Freak N64 death prompts mother to sue.
Accessed March 14, 2002 at: http://www.vunet.com/News/1129569
Miller, S. A. (2002, March 30).
Death of a game addict. Milwaukee Journal Sentenel.
Accessed April 2, 2002 at http://www.jsonline.com/news/State/mar02/31536.asp
Mullin, C. R., & Linz, D. (1995).
Desensitization and resensitization to violence
against women: Effects of exposure to sexually
violent films on judgements of domestic violent
victims. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 69, 449-459.
RSNA (2002, December 2). Violent
video games trigger unusual brain activity in
aggressive adolescents. Retrieved December
4, 2002, from http://shows.rsna.org/rsna2002/V40/press.cvn?id=11&p_id=130.
Strasburger, V.C., & Wilson,
B.J. (2002). Children, Adolescents, and the
Media. Thousand Oaks, CA:Sage.
Yee, N. (2001). The Norrathian
scrolls: A study of EverQuest. Available: