Press Releases

2001 Releases

Study Finds Significant Amounts of Violence in Video Games Rated as Suitable for All Ages

For immediate release: July 31, 2001 

Boston, MA -- Public concern about the amount of violence in video games led to the 1994 creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and its rating system. The video game E rating (for "Everyone") indicates that the game "has content suitable for persons ages six and older."  A new study by Kimberly Thompson, Sc.D., Assistant Professor of Risk Analysis and Decision Science at the Harvard School of Public Health, Center for Risk Analysis, and doctoral student Kevin Haninger finds that nearly two thirds of a sample of E-rated games involved intentional violence, and that injuring or killing characters is rewarded or required for advancement in 60% of the games. The study is published in the current edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Thompson and Haninger compiled a list of 672 games rated E by the ESRB available by April 1, 2001 for play on videogame consoles such as Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, and Sony PlayStation and PlayStation 2.  They characterized these 672 games according to 11 genres, such as "action," "sports," "racing," "adventure," etc., and also according to the content descriptors assigned by the ESRB.  They selected and played a sample of 55 games from the 672 E-rated video games currently available, and analyzed videotape recordings of this play to quantitatively assess the violent content in the games. Violence was defined as intentional acts where the aggressor makes or attempts to make some physical contact that has potential to inflict injury or cause death, including only violent acts not associated with normal game play in sports games.

Some thirty-five of the sampled games depicted intentional violence. The duration of the violence ranged between 1.5% of the time played in NHL ‘99 to 91.2% of the playing time in Nuclear Strike 64. 27 of the sample games (49%) depicted deaths from violence, with 21 of 22 games in the ‘action" genre accounting for most of these at death rates ranging from 0.01 deaths per minute in Sonic Adventure to up to 8.4 deaths per minute in Rat Attack.  

The study found that the presence of an ESRB content descriptor for violence did correlate with the presence of intentional violence in the game, indicating that the ESRB"s content descriptors are helpful.  However, it also found the 44% of games that received no content descriptors contained acts of intentional violence.  The authors recommend that the ESRB include playing the finished games as part of its process for assigning a rating, and that efforts should be explored to improve the consistency in the assignment of content descriptors and genre since these provide important information about violent content.  They also found that some nearly identical games had different ESRB ratings on different systems, such as Nuclear Strike 64 and Gex3: Deep Cover Gecko rated E on Nintendo 64 but rated T (for Teen) on PlayStation, and they suggested that this might cause confusion for consumers and should be avoided.

The authors comment: "The definition for the E rating states that the game "may contain minimal violence," yet our experience shows that many E-games contain a significant amount of violence and demonstrates ambiguity in what constitutes "minimal violence."  They add "an E rating does not automatically signify a level of violence acceptable for very young players. Physicians and parents should understand that popular E-rated video games may be a source of exposure to violence for children that rewards them for violent actions." 

The study was funded by a private gift from Mitchell Dong and Robin LaFoley Dong to the Harvard School of Public Health. 

For more information about the paper, check out the Kids Risk Project web site at www.kidsrisk.harvard.edu for answers to Frequently Asked Questions about this study.

List of 672 game titles, genres, and content descriptors (32 K, 19 pages).


For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman 
Office of Communications 
Harvard School of Public Health 
677 Huntington Avenue 
Boston, MA 02115 
Phone: 617-432-4752 
Email: rherman@hsph.harvard.edu