What’s in your video game?

As consumers, how do we make informed choices about product purchases? We are bombarded by advertisements, our kids tell us about what they’ve seen on TV and what their friends have while we consider about what we can afford.

Food products have labels with ingredients and nutritional information. Toy boxes indicate whether assembly is required and how many batteries to feed them. How do we know what’s in a video game? A few screen captures, game features and a prominently displayed warning label from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) on the front and content ratings on the back of the box. Alcohol reference? Bad! Comic mischief? Not so bad. Blood and gore? Very bad! Sexual violence? Horrible!

The ESRB was established by the Entertainment Software Association in 1994 as a non-profit, self-regulatory body to give computer and video game ratings. Publishers pay a fee and submit a DVD with the most objectionable contents to the raters to determine the most appropriate rating. The raters are never required to actually play any of the games.
The content descriptors provided by the ESRB on video game boxes provide valuable information about content that would be objectionable to many parents. But it is akin to the surgeon general warning and implies that video gaming could be hazardous to your health.

As a parent, therapist, consumer and avid gamer, I find these ratings ignore content beyond the objectionable –interactive media experiences that are engaging, stimulating and enriching.
Internationally, interactive media content ratings lack critical information that can provide effective guidelines not only for parents and players but for educators, legislators, mentors, tutors and therapists. Just as a chef will judge a dish by tastes and smells and a composer will evaluate a concerto by the sound and feel, video games and interactive media should be rated on the richness of content present by actually playing them or watching others play.

Rating methods and systems for non-interactive media such as movies, music and books are inadequate for interactive media such as games, software and hardware. Users have opportunities to alter their experiences by their choices within the media. These choices are based on what information we perceive, absorb, retain and how we use that information.

After several years of research and design, I feel the best method of rating and reviewing interactive media content is based in cognitive models of information processing and thinking. I propose ten areas of content ratings:

  • Sayings –verbal communication
  • Sounds – acoustic information
  • Tunes – musical information
  • Writings – written communication
  • Sights – visual information
  • Things – scientific processes
  • Actions – body-kinesthetic information
  • Others – social exchange
  • Ideas – thought processes
  • Self – reflective processes

These areas allow for a broad range of judging content based on users’ learning and intellectual style preferences, permit recommended and disapproved ratings within each area and provides content descriptors that are more accurately describe what is really present.

Future postings will include video game ratings/reviews, content descriptors and future implications for use. Stay tuned.

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