Battles in the video-game world don't always take place on the screen. Gamemakers often have found themselves duking it out with the National Institute on Media and the Family over violence in games, their marketing practices and game ratings. But something unusual has been happening lately: The one-time adversaries are actually working together.
The proof is in the Minneapolis-based institute's annual MediaWise Video Game Report Card (www. mediawise.org), which comes out today for the 13th year. In the past, the report has criticized video-gamemakers and given grades -- often low -- on how their products affect children. But this year, the grades are up and the tone is conciliatory. One reason?
"Nearly all of our policy recommendations from past report cards have been implemented," the report says.
David Walsh, who founded the National Institute on Media and the Family, said there has definitely been a shift in the nonprofit organization's relationship with gamemakers.
"For us to be fair with the report card, we need to acknowledge the fact that the industry has really made significant changes and reforms," Walsh said last week. "While there's still a ways to go, we are starting to see our role now as focusing more and more on parents -- because we've been critiquing the industry for not doing enough to help parents, and they've basically responded to everything that we've asked."
Some examples of the changes the industry has made in response to the institute's concerns, according to Walsh:
• The three major home consoles -- Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii -- all have parenting controls.
• Marketing practices that once targeted young players with adult-oriented games have been cleaned up. "They now have probably the best advertising code of conduct among any of the entertainment industries," Walsh said.
• The ratings on video games, which were inconsistent and not universally applied, are more accurate.
• Retailers now have 80 percent compliance for verifying the age of buyers before selling games rated Mature, for players 17 and older. "That's not perfect, but it's a heck of a lot better than the zero it was just five years ago," Walsh said.
• The Entertainment Software Ratings Board, an industry-backed group that administers video-game ratings, is doing a better job of educating parents after years of being a prime target of the institute. "Their accelerated parent and retailer education programs are state of the art," he said.
In fact, the ESRB recently augmented its ratings by adding paragraph summaries that detail why a game has received a particular rating. By visiting the ESRB's website (www.esrb.org), parents can quickly get a feel for the game's content. For instance, the summary for the popular mature-rated shooter "Resistance 2" explains, "Aliens and humans get blown up, torn apart, shot, impaled and killed in gushes of red blood and body parts. During cut scenes, team members are killed by aliens, and in one instance, executed by another character. Characters use strong profanity ... during game play and cut scenes."
As more evidence of the new environment, Walsh's comments were even included in the ESRB's news release about its new game summaries.
"There's a good deal of common ground that the ESRB shares with the National Institute on Media and the Family in terms of wanting parents to be involved in and informed about the media their children consume," ESRB president Patricia Vance explained last week. "Dr. Walsh agrees that rating summaries are a powerful tool to allow parents to be even more informed about video game content, and we're very proud to have had his support in our announcement."
Things aren't perfect, Walsh said. Research shows that many kids still play mature-rated games, he added, but the responsibility lies with parents -- the only group to receive an "incomplete" grade on the institute's report card. That's why it also advises parents on which new games to embrace and which ones to avoid (at left).
"What we're doing now is partnering with the industry to work on our now mutually agreed-upon goal, which is educating parents and giving them the tools," Walsh said. "That does not mean that we will abandon our role as the conscience of the industry, but it also doesn't make sense to be a naysayer just for the sake of being a naysayer."
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542