WETZSTEIN: Game warnings need obfuscation

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Here comes Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned, the latest version of the bad-boy video game parents are forever warned about.

Its new incarnation has just a little something extra — full-frontal male nudity.

Let the hand-wringing begin.

Or let’s have all the parents recite once more, “Please check the labels on video games and don’t let your children buy games labeled ‘M’ for mature, and maybe not even ‘T’ for teen, and pay attention to the recommended ages, blah, blah, blah.”

The $10 billion industry will then go back to selling its games, the young people will go back to playing the games (including the parent-prohibited ones they find at each other’s houses), and the parents will go back to whatever they were doing.

It’s reality-check time about these vaunted video-game labels. Bottom line, they are a big, fat con.

To parents, video-game labels offer important information to help them steer their children away from the potty-mouth, head-splitting, blood-spattering, shoot-‘em-all games. To kids, “M” means “must have” — even little kids don’t want the games labeled “E” for everyone.

Where did I get these ideas? A new study in Pediatrics, titled “Age and Violent-Content Labels Make Video Games Forbidden Fruits for Youth.”

Dutch researchers invented 12 video games and described them to 310 Dutch youths ages 7 to 17. Then they asked the kids to tell them whether these “new games” sounded interesting or boring.

Some video-game descriptions had no rating labels at all. Others had age ratings (such as 7+, 12+, 16+ and 18+), and either a symbol indicating it “contained violence” or “contained no violence.”

The results? Even the youngest children strongly preferred the games rated for older kids. The games with violent-content warnings were hands-down favorites among both boys and girls, and among all age groups.

Which games looked most boring? Those containing “no violence” or missing any kind of label.

“The results of our study clearly showed that age-based labels and violence content labels only make video games more attractive, like forbidden fruits,” wrote University of Amsterdam scholar Marije Nije Bijvank, who collaborated with researchers from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

Thus, labeling objectionable content in video games “backfires” with youth because it causes them to desire such games, they wrote. It’s “a boomerang effect.”

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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