Sex-and-Violence Ratings: What's in Them for Libraries?

By Schmidt, C. James | American Libraries, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Sex-and-Violence Ratings: What's in Them for Libraries?


Schmidt, C. James, American Libraries


A LOOK AT CURRENT RATING SYSTEMS OFFERS AN INDICATION OF WHAT LIES AHEAD

An article in the October 18, 1999, New York Times described a new concept in computer games--"Christian Action" games. The article noted that the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) had given one game, called War in Heaven, a rating of "T," meaning it is suitable for people age 13 and older. The reasons for the rating were unexplained, although the ESRB noted that the game contained graphic violence.

Given that movies and recordings have long been rated--movies since 1968, recordings since 1985--the rating of games like War in Heaven invites two important questions.

* Which category of materials will be next to be rated?

* How, if at all, might such ratings be used in or by publicly funded libraries?

An overview of the schemes currently used to rate the content of various media and a summary of the case law on the attempted uses of private motion picture rating codes by governments may provide some guidance and an indication of what kinds of content rating await as yet unrated media.

The ratings games

Movies. The so-called Hays Code, which dated from 1930, was replaced in 1968 by the Motion Picture Academy of America (MPAA) ratings panel and system. The MPAA system has three characteristics that reappear in other media rating systems: it is voluntary, it is entirely private, and it is intended as a parental guidance system (in fact, the only requirement for serving on an MPAA review panel is being a parent).

The MPAA rating system has five categories:

* G = General audiences--all ages.

* PG = Parental guidance suggested--some material may not be suitable for children.

* PG-13 = Parents strongly cautioned--some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

* R = Restricted-under age 17 requires accompanying adult.

* NC-17 = No one under 18 admitted ("NC-17" replaced "X" in 1990).

Sound recordings. In 1985, the Recording Industry Association of America entered into an agreement with parent groups to label new recordings that contain strong language or expressions of violence, sex, or drug abuse. A uniform parental advisory logo indicating the presence of one or more of these was developed in 1990 for use on packaging.

Computer and video games. The ESRB has administered a voluntary parental advisory rating system for video and computer games since 1994. There are five age-based categories:

* EC = Early childhood--ages 3 and up.

* E = Everyone-ages and up.

* T = Teen--ages 13 and up.

* M = Mature--ages 17 and up.

* AO = Adults only--ages 18 and up.

The packaging also displays content descriptors such as "realistic violence," "animated blood and gore," "strong language," "use of tobacco and alcohol," and "gaming."

Television. The Federal Communications Commission adopted rules in 1998 mandating that all TV sets with 13-inch or larger screens manufactured after January 1, 2000, have "V-chips" that read voluntary encodings that indicate sexual or violent content. The encodings are displayed for the first 15 seconds of a rated program. The encodings are:

* TV-Y = All children.

* TV-Y7 = Older children--ages 7 and up.

* TV-G = General audience--suitable for all ages.

* TV-PG = Parental guidance suggested--contains material parents may find unsuitable for younger children.

* TV-14 = Parents strongly cautioned--contains material many parents would find unsuitable for children under 14.

* TV-MA = Mature audience only--specifically designed to be viewed by adults; may be unsuitable for children under 17.

Cyberspace. Content rating schemes for the Internet, and devices designed to use them, are of two general types: filters and codes provided by producers. Although widely acknowledged to be imperfect, filtering software is the better-known device for the Internet. …

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