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December 06, 2007

Giving the Gift of Gore? Video Game Buyers Beware
    by Anne Moore Odell

ICCR works to educate video game buyers on video games ratings and works with retailers to keep mature and violent video games out of children's hands. -- Eighty percent of all video games are sold during the holiday season reports the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR). ICCR recently sent out its annual holiday letter designed to help consumers make informed decisions when choosing retailers who sell video games for children and teens.

ICCR is an association of 275 faith-based institutional investors with over $100 billion in assets under management. ICCR and its members work with companies to be socially and environmentally responsible.

The percentage of people who play video and computer games varies from poll to poll, but represents millions of Americans and is growing larger each year. A 2006 AP-AOL poll reports that 40% of American adults play games on a computer or a console. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) states that 69% of heads of households play computer and/or video games.

The ESA further reports that the average video game player is 33 years old and that children and teens playing video games only make up 28% of the game playing population. The most popular games are, actually, sports and card games, especially poker.

Although the majority of video game players are of age, ICCR is "concerned that video games with extreme violence are often the item most likely given or purchased for children and adolescents." To help shoppers, ICCR publishes its "Video Game Retailer Comparison Chart: Actions Taken by Retailers to Prevent Sales to Minors of Mature (M) Rated Video Games."

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), whose independent raters give video games both a letter rating and a descriptor phrase, rates video games. ESRB reports the percentage of ratings assigned in 2006 as: E (Everyone) - 53%, E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) - 16%, T (Teen) - 23%, M (Mature) - 8% and EC (Early Childhood) and AO (Adults Only) - combined, less than 1%.

ESRB reports Game unit sales by rating category in 2006: E (Everyone) - 45%, E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) - 11%, T (Teen) - 29% M (Mature) - 15%EC (Early Childhood) and AO (Adults Only) - combined, less than 1%.

The ICCR's chart lists the video game selling policies at Best Buy, Blockbuster, Circuit City, Game Stop, Sears and Kmart, Target, Toys "R" Us, and Wal-Mart, and includes what ICCR considers the "elements of an effective, responsible, and well-monitored video game sales policy."

Gary Brouse, Director for ICCR's Working Group on Violence & Militarization of Society explained, "I think the education of consumers is important because the games are constantly changing. Every year it is getting more and more difficult to keep up with this issue. It is important for consumers to understand that besides the ratings, there the descriptors that describe how gruesome the games are."

"One thing that is really great about the chart, is that it provides information to parents and consumers about the retailers. We aren't saying where you should shop," Brouse added.

Patricia E. Vance, President of ESRB told "Actually, retailers continue to make good progress in enforcing their voluntary store policy not to sell M (Mature) rated games to children under 17 without permission from their parent. "

"National research measuring parental awareness and use of the ratings for computer and video games shows that 83% of American parents of children who play video games are aware of the ESRB ratings, and 74% use them regularly when buying games for their families according to a study commissioned annually by the ESRB, " Vance continued.

ESRB also reports that these figures are higher than those measured in the same study in 2005, when awareness and use were at 78% and 70% respectively. The study was conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates in March 2007, and surveyed over 500 parents of children age 3 to 17 that play video games.

The retailers in ICCR's chart all display video game policies in their stores and have other policies in place to train employees around not selling mature rated videos to children. However, ICCR would also like retailers to disclose the results of programs that verify that cashiers are requesting an ID prior to purchase.

"Parents have the authority and primary responsibility to decide which games, music and movies are appropriate for their children," said Bill Cimino, director of corporate communications for Circuit City (ticker:CC). "Circuit City adopted its policy to support parents, not to take their place. We strongly encourage parents to take an active role in evaluating the entertainment products their children use. To that end, Circuit City has a carding system in place for R-rated DVD movies and explicit lyric CDs."

ICCR's Brouse singled out Target (ticker: TGT) as a leader for not carrying the violent video game Manhunt 2.

"Target strives to provide merchandise that will appeal to a wide variety of guests. We also want guests to be comfortable with the purchasing decisions they make at Target," said Brandy Doyle, Target spokesperson. "While Manhunt 2 was given a Mature rating by the ERSB, we received additional information that players can potentially view previously filtered content by altering the game code. As a result, we have decided not to carry the game. "

ERSB's Vance wonders if the media and special issue groups have made M rated games videos and children a bigger issue than they really are. "It seems that a handful of M-rated titles may receive a disproportionate amount of media attention, but the percentage of rating assignments and game sales paints a different picture," Vance said. "In 2006, only one M-rated game was among the top 10 selling video games while other titles in the sports, strategy and racing genres continue to be very popular year in and year out."

ICCR has other issues with video game industry besides exposing children to the violence found in some of the games. Brouse also said ICCR is concerned with the lack of diversity in the video game industry. There are very few women and minorities on the boards and in the management of game producers and designers. Brouse puts the figure at 95% non-minority on boards and in management. This lack of diversity is especially troubling considering that many of the games feature minorities and women.

ICCR is also working with federal trade and congressional leaders who are looking at the game sector and marketing standards.

The industry-tracking NPD Group reports that last year the video game industry made $12.6 billion dollars, with December 2006 alone bringing in $3.7 billion. If 2007 follows this trend, as it set to do, the importance of the industry can't be over stated.

ICCR Holiday letter reads in part: "Behavioral science research has warned that playing violent video games increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior in children and youth. In many cases, these types of video games encourage and reward players for performing acts of violence and brutality that include beating women, shooting police officers and committing racially motivated acts of violence.

"The holiday season is a time of celebrating with loved ones the breaking in of light into a troubling and hurting world. Let us be instruments of light." it adds.

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