What They Like

Newsweek's April 21 edition contains a gift to every parent who has a kid who plays video games, watches movies, listens to music or consumes any other kind of entertainment media.

 In an article titled “The Game-Ratings Game,” Newsweek's resident geek, N'Gai Croal, uses the upcoming release of the video game Grand Theft Auto IV to alert parent-readers to a new company called What They Like (www.whattheyplay.com).  The company “provides detailed information to parents about the content of their kids' favorite entertainment.” Not whether the entertainment is good as most typical reviews go, but actually a detailed description of the content, including profanity and types of violence.

Croal, who noted he is not a parent, wrote that he is constantly asked by parents whether a game is safe for their kids to play.  While all video games come with ratings, those ratings come from the industry itself. Many of the games that most concern parents come with an “M” rating, which stands for “mature” and carries the warning that it content unsuitable for children under the age of 17 and might include, “intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.”

But sometimes the ratings don't tell the story.  For example, in 2005 it was revealed that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was rated M, contained “hidden” content in the game which allowed players to let the main character engage in sexual intercourse.  The controversy that arose forced the game's creator Rockstar Games to re-rate the game “AO” (Adults Only) which is the equivalent of an NC-17 rating at the movies and generally translates to lost sales.

The creation of the company, What They Like, late last year is the result of a real market need.  The company's founders have decided to tackle videogames first because that is an entertainment medium about which many parents are clueless.  Croah interviewed one of the company founders, who is the father of two pre-school-aged boys.

“There was a part of the market that was growing quickly and wasn't being spoken to in any way,” he says. “One was parents that had kids who were playing games, but the parents had absolutely no idea about the content. The other part was the gamers who had grown up with the industry. They were starting to settle down and have kids, and it made them very mindful of the ratings.”

It is the next paragraph that contains the really important information, however.

“Since launching whattheyplay.com four months ago, Davison says he's been surprised by just how concerned parents are about profanity. 'The parents told us, 'If our kids hear cursing in the game, they repeat it—it's the one thing in videogames that we get an instant feedback loop on.'”

Which means that yes, Virginia, videogames DO affect behavior.  There is a ream of social science that supports this observation though it is mostly targeted at the consumption of violent media and aggressive behavior.  A study released in the summer of 2006 linked early sexual activity in teens to listening to degrading song lyrics.  But producers of movies, television shows, music videos and videogames continually refuse to look at the evidence and take responsibility for their part in the corrosion of values, character and morals their products promote. 

Parents are – and should be – concerned about the content of the entertainment media their children are consuming. There is a media assault on American values which the Culture and Media Institute documented last year. (Click here to read the full report.) It is a statement in and of itself that companies like What They Like are being formed by parents who have grown up in the era of media bombardment and are themselves surprised by the genuine concern of other parents about the content of entertainment media.  Kudos to Newsweek's Croal for alerting parents to this new and valuable resource.

And for the record, whattheyplay.com has compiled a list of “11 Things Parents Should Know about Grand Theft Auto IV which includes the observation that the release of the game is highly anticipated and most expect it will be enormously popular.  Its content description, according to the site, reads: “Intense Violence, Blood, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Partial Nudity, Use of Drugs and Alcohol.”  Newsweek's writeup included the fact that this is the first GTA game to include an alcohol content descriptor, because the game allows players to “attempt to drive while impaired.”  It will be rated M and deemed appropriate – by someone – for those 17 and older.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.