December 14, 2005
SRI Community Releases Retailer Guidelines to Avoid Violent Video Game Sales to Kids
by William Baue
The Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility guidelines address underage exposure to graphic
violence, strong sexual content, and racist themes, as well as impact on shareholder value.
This holiday season, video games will figure prominently on kids' gift wishlists. The sheer number
of video games on the market increases the difficulty of preventing games rated "M" (for "Mature")
by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) from reaching the hands of those under age 17. The
Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), a coalition of 275 faith-based institutional investors and
socially responsible investing (SRI) firms with over $110 billion in assets, has been working over
the past year to address this problem. This work culminated yesterday with the release of a set of
guidelines for retailers to help keep video games containing "graphic violence, strong sexual
content, and racist themes" out of the hands of youth.
"While we've seen
improvement among retailers on this issue, much more work needs to be done," said Cathy Rowan,
co-chair of the ICCR Violence and Militarization of Society Working Group that created the
guidelines and representative of ICCR member Trinity Health. "We are urging all video game retailers
to create and enforce video game sales policies that reflect the best practices in the industry to
ensure that M-rated video games for audiences ages 17 and older are not sold to minors."
The guidelines combine best practices from the major retailers with policies and programs in
place, including Best Buy (ticker: BBY), Target (TGT), Wal-Mart (WMT), and Circuit City (CC). Key
recommendations include separating M-rated games from youth-oriented games, establishing online
methods for checking the age of buyers, training employees on video game sales policies, and
programming cash registers to remind cashiers about age rules.
"For those retailers that
have created a policy, the most important element is to ensure that the cashiers are asking for
identification and then checking that ID to make sure that person is 17 or older, and that the
cashier is not selling the game if the person is underage," said Julie Tanner, corporate advocacy
director at ICCR member Christian Brothers Investment Services (CBIS). "How will the retailer know if the cashiers are
asking for ID?"
"The best way I know of is to conduct 'mystery shops,'" Ms. Tanner told
SocialFunds.com, referring to company-orchestrated attempts by undercover, underage consumers to
buy M-rated games to test if cashiers are properly checking for identification.
element of the policy takes it cue from the very studies that inspired the creation of the
guidelines. For example, the National
Institute on Media and the Family 2005 MediaWise Video Game Report Card found
that in 46 "mystery shop" attempts when children between the ages of 9 and 16 tried to buy M-rated
video games, they were able to 44 percent of the time.
"They rated retailers'
enforcement of their policies a 'D-,'" said Ms. Tanner. "Similar reports produced by the New York City Council in 2003 and 2004 found
that three-quarters of unaccompanied children aged 13 through 16 were able to buy violent games for
Of those retailers with policies, Best Buy is the only one whose
policy calls for mystery shops, according to Ms. Tanner, with "mystery shoppers" sent to more than
100 stores each month. In addition to calling on other retailers to adopt this practice, the
9-page set of guidelines also calls for disclosure of the results of these "mystery shops" and
other internal audits.
Best Buy also exhibits best practice by committing not to
advertise M-rated video games on television, while Wal-Mart does not advertise such games in its
circulars--the strongest circulars policy that ICCR is aware of. In contrast, Target advertises
M-rated video games in its circulars, but places an oversized M-rating symbol over the ad, and its
policy states that it "does not place advertisements for M-rated games in publications specifically
targeted to teens or younger audiences."
Another impetus for the creation of the
guidelines is a host of studies indicating that exposure to video games can affect children’s
"We are particularly concerned about children who have access to video games
with graphic violence or racist themes because of the many studies indicating that children who use
these games are more prone to aggressive or violent behavior," said Ms. Tanner.
to a resolution passed last month
by the American Psychological Association (APA)
calling for reduction of violence in video games and interactive media, citing research that shows
how playing violent video games increases aggressive behavior and decreases helpful behavior.
ICCR stresses how the guidelines are formulated to help protect shareholder value, pointing out
a California bill that would require that a business manager who lets minors view or play a violent
game faces up to 93 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $25,000. An incident from this past summer
illustrates how shareholder value concerns coincide with concerns about kids' access to mature
"This July, it was revealed that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had suspect
content including graphic sexual acts and racial stereotyping that could be 'unlocked' with
instructions posted on the Internet," Ms. Tanner explained. "Retailers had to pull all the San
Andreas games and send them back to RockStar/Take 2, the company that has created the game because
this content sent the game over the M-rating into the AO category for 'Adults Only, or those 18 and
"Since most of the major retailers will not sell AO games, Take2 had to recut the
game to ensure that the suspect content was not unlockable and then ship back the game about a
month later so it could retain its M-rating," she continued. "Take 2 had to restate its earnings
and had reported losses due to this fiasco."