HSPH Targets Video Games

Study finds inappropriate material in sports video games

Two Harvard researchers got to say a little “booyah” of their own to America when they appeared on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” last week to discuss their findings on violence in sports video games.

Kimberly M. Thompson, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), and Kevin M. Haninger, a PhD candidate at HSPH, were invited to speak on the popular sports news program for their research on the content and rating systems used for video games, in the last of a four-part series on the medium broadcast by “SportsCenter.”

On the show, the two said that these products—which were given an E (everyone) rating, meant to denote everyone ages six and up—contained inappropriate material, not listed on the content descriptors on the cover of the package and included material that was not a part of the sports themselves.

In particular, Thompson and Haninger pointed to MLB Slugfest—which allows the player to beam an opponent with a baseball and deliver violent, unnecessary body blows—and NBA Ballers, in which players acquire a greater entourage of women as they advance in the game.

“It was really more about the bling-bling,” Thompson said about the ability to earn a larger cadre of groupies in NBA Ballers. “We focused on that game, and why it was E-rated instead of T [for teen] rating.”

The findings that Thompson and Haninger presented on ESPN came from a series of articles they have co-authored on video games, which have looked at the rates of violence in T- and E-rated video games. The most press they received followed the publication of their findings of T-rated video games in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on Feb. 18, though they were invited to appear on another ESPN show after an earlier article was published.

This previous article was also published in JAMA, on Aug. 1, 2001, and looked at the rates of violence in E-rated video games. In the study, Thompson and Haninger discovered that games often contained depictions of violence, even though there weren’t any labels on the video game cover, and according to the study, “that games may reward players for their violent actions.” The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is supposed to put a list of content descriptors on the cover of its video games, in addition to just the simple rating.

Afterwards, the researchers were invited to collaborate on a piece that another ESPN program, “Outside the Lines,” was doing on video games licensed by different leagues. In particular, they highlighted NFL Blitz, which allows a person playing to the game to hit and jump on an opponent after he has been already tackled, an activity not allowed in the normal rules of football.

“I’m not necessarily objecting to the creation of the game per se,” Haninger said. “It’s just that these games are being marketed for an age group other than the content would suggest.”

All of this work is part of a larger Kids Risk Project, which was founded by Thompson, and, “focuses on using an analytical approach to address risks to children,” according to the group’s website.

“The main message that I’ve always had with respect to media is that they’re educational,” Thompson said. “They teach, whether people like it or not. Oftentimes people have this fearful dichotomy between education and entertainment.”

Haninger said that he and Thompson are currently studying the rates of violence in video games given an M (mature) rating, though they have not yet set a date as to when they will complete this latest study.

—Staff writer Evan R. Johnson can be reached at erjohns@fas.harvard.edu.