MediaWise Goes Gaming for New Year

Gaming is becoming a monstrous playing field as new and increasingly exciting opportunities flood the market with the coming of the 2006 New Year and the advancement of technologies to entertain and engage young people and families.

So clich�© is this realization that few realize just how explosive the growth of the industry has been, and what impacts this may be having on our generations of players and thinkers, young and old alike. Since 1995, nearly 3 billon games have been sold globally, generating $25 billion in revenues last year with expectations of more than a doubling of that amount over the next four years.

Or so say two recent reports released by MediaWise, a public service monitoring arm of the National Institute of Media and the Family. A November 29th, 2005 Report Card details what occurred in the field during the year just past, and the other companion assessment recaps the trends over 10 years.

Both also offer projects, predictions and recommendations for a healthier future.

The Institute bills itself as the world’s leading and most respected research-based “independent, non-partisan, non-sectarian, non-profit organization” dedicated to the impact of media on children and youth.

While many aspects of these reports are critical of the content of the games and industry/public efforts to make them better, they do recognize the important fact that these entertainment avenues are hitting home: games are big sellers everywhere and finding their way into increasingly important aspects of the lives and social networks of young people. Which means, of course, that the young people (and adults) want even more.

According to MediaWise’s 10-year assessment, “The future of video games will, if current trends continue, be characterized by increased immersion and technological convergences. Ten years ago, the average kid played video games at home in front of the TV for three hours a week. Today, the lines between technologies have already begun to blur as, for instance, increasingly sophisticated games are available on âÂ?¦ mobile phones, some of which serve as PDAs, Internet devices, and cameras. Digital technology, and thus video games, has become a substantial part of nearly all our daily lives.”

Specific details about what has been happening in 2005 are discussed in the other report, serving as the basis for MediaWise’s offering academic-style grades for the gaming and retail industry’s policies and practices. The grades offered in this latest release generally ranged from a B for the quality of the policies of retailers to a failing grade of an F for how well the manufacturers and their watchdog associates accurately depicted the content of the products.

To MediaWise, the games of 2005 like those of past years are too violent and carry with them inappropriate messages, even with some improvements in monitoring, spearheaded by the Institute and its political leaders. The Institute is particularly pleased with the progress made toward beginning a self-monitored rating system that most players now know. They are also proud of being out front in documenting the impact game playing may have on the brain development of young children.

A decade ago the video and gaming industry did not have a standardized rating system. So the Institute called for easy-to-use and visible assessments, and today most games are emblazoned with ratings and information on their packages or Web portals. Yet the Institute still believes that communities should be aware that “every child who plays video games is undergoing a powerful developmental experiment, the results of which we do not yet fully comprehend.”

But notwithstanding this progress, the 10-Year assessment concludes that parents and communities should all take note that overall “the past decade has brought a host of alarming revelations as well, including a disturbing trend of sexualized violence toward women, a tendency toward bafflingly inaccurate ratings, and an unfortunate prevalence of ultra-violent games listed among children’s most popular games.”

From the viewpoint of young people themselves, the results of studies of what young people themselves think reaffirm the reach of the gaming phenomenon and a bit about what young people are doing to expand their access. Some of the most recent positive survey findings from 657 4th to 12th grade students:

* 87% play video games at home, with more than 90% of boys and 80% of girls saying they play.
* Nearly 50% of students say their parents “understand” the rating systems.
* 26% say their parents have stopped them from getting a video game because of its maturity rating.
* 55% of the time, a parent was present when a child purchased a game that recommended adult guidance.

Other signs of progress toward improving the industry are also evident from parts of the survey geared toward the retail outlets (65 stores) themselves. Among these are that

* 71% say they educate the public about the rating system.
* Most of their employees are trained to some degree about monitoring gaming restrictions.
* And some 97% of retail personnel say the personally understand the rating system.

MediaWise still gave the entire realm of “killographics” (a name itself suggestive of many of the problems they see) a woeful comprehensive grade of a “D-” for its first decade. They believe the industry is too heavily focused on the bottom line instead of the welfare of its buyers or players.

At the end of the Institute’s reports, several grand goals were identified for the coming decade to continue and refine the progress made to date. These include suggestions for:

�· Developing a greater body of research on the impact of the games on the brains and socialization of young people.
�· Refining the independent universal ratings system.
Ã?· Creating “media-free” bedroom zones to limit impacts on school performance and parental or peer interaction.
Ã?· Building MediaWise communities and organizations that focus on “Watch What Your Kids Watch” programs.
�· And continuing the education of parents about just what kinds of influences these electronic teachers have on the play of their children.

MediaWise also makes specific consumer recommendations of games that it deems appropriate for holiday and educational gifts. Those that they deem most positive for children and teens include:

o Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
o The Incredibles: Rise of the Underminer
o Peter Jackon’s King Kong
o Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
o The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
o Sly3: Honor Amongst Thieves
o We Love Katamari
o Sid Meier’s Pirates!
o Dance Dance Revolution ULTRAMIX3
o Backyard Baseball 2005

Those that received Parental Alerts because of their mature or violent content include:

o Far Cry
o F.E.A.R.
o The Warriors
o Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse
o True Crime: New York City
o Blitz: The League
o Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
o God of War
o Doom 3: Resurrection of Evil
o Urban Reign
o Conker: Live and Reloaded
o Resident Evil 4

Additional information on these specific recommendations and more information about the rating system are viewable at http://www.mediafamily.org.

It is interesting to note that new “socially conscious” games have not yet drawn much of the attention of MediaWise, even though they tend to be viewed favorably by young people and adults around the world. The Food-Force.com participatory online game by the United Nations, for example, which allows the players to be part of a multinational team of adventurers set on addressing issues of hunger and malnutrition in a fictional country impacted by a natural disaster, garners no mention in the reports. Food Force users downloaded over 2 copies in the first six months, and multi-language versions are now available to further their reach with positive options.

It will be most interesting in the immediate future to watch whether monitoring groups take note of this small but significant change in direction toward socially sensitive game topics. If so, it could help generate a truly new shape of battlefields in the future on many levels.

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