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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, referring to company-orchestrated attempts by undercover, underage consumers to buy M-rated games to test if cashiers are properly checking for identification.

This 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 mature audiences."

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 behavior.

"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.

She points 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 content.

"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 older."

"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."


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