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WETZSTEIN: Game warnings need obfuscation

- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

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."

Earlier, I called the labels a con. Sorry, they're apparently boomerangs. My bad.

Surely even the brightest parents know video-game labels are aimed at making them feel better so they'll plop down another $50 for a new game.

I have a modest proposal.

First, drop the video-game labels. Really, if they're only going to attract the kids to the objectionable stuff, they're worse than useless.

Instead, require all future game descriptions to be written with polysyllabic words. No more easy-to-read phrases such as "nightmares below" and "demons marching." We want fancy words such as "conflagration" and complex descriptions such as "After lucubration, the plenipotentiary advised salient interdiction."

Third, to ensure maximum wordiness and incomprehensibility, game descriptions should be written by federal bureaucrats, edited by lawyers and proofed by the people who write mortgage documents.

We may not be able to stop our kids' love affairs with video games, but we could at least make them work harder to figure out where to get their next digital bloodbath — or dose of full-frontal male nudity.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.