Sega's video ratings system -- The company recently started rating and labeling its own software

By Heather Keets
Updated September 10, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

After years of watching their kids get bombarded with violent video games, parents now have their own line of defense. Best-selling Sega has begun helping adults monitor what their children are playing by rating its software, instituting the first such labeling system in the history of the 21-year-old business.

The ratings resemble movie tags: GA (general audiences; i.e., no foul language), MA-13 (appropriate for teens; some profanity, intent is fighting to win), and MA-17 (not appropriate for children under 17; titillating interaction, realistic death sequences). And who’s calling the shots? Sega, whose big sellers include two versions of Sonic The Hedgehog and the recently released Jurassic Park (which received a GA), has set up a board of child psychologists and marketing specialists who will determine each new game’s rating.

Sega’s main rival, Nintendo, isn’t signing up for the labeling effort. The company says its games, including Super Mario Brothers, Starfox, and The Legend of Zelda, meet acceptable standards before ever leaving the studio. Since 1988 Nintendo has prohibited such things as sexually explicit scenes, denigrating language, gratuitous or excessive violence, the dramatic portrayal of blood, and images of God, Buddha, Satan, and hell. ”These guidelines are strict compared with Sega’s [new ratings system],” says Perrin Kaplan, a Nintendo spokeswoman.

But Sega’s director of marketing services, Ellen Beth van Buskirk, counters that her company has always drawn the same line Nintendo does. ”We have a quality assurance program, where nothing socially unacceptable goes out,” she says. ”The rating system was created in addition to that program.”

This stab at self-regulation, of course, is aimed at parents. In many games, the violence increases along with the level of play, making it difficult for most parents to know what their kids are up to. And many adults may be surprised by the number of graphic scenes in benign-sounding games. In Sega’s Night Trap, for instance, a woman in skimpy nightclothes gets grabbed around the neck in order to have her blood drained and made into wine. Night Trap has received Sega’s only MA-17 rating so far.

While the labels serve as warnings, there is no enforcement system to keep kids from buying the games they want — which might just happen to be the ones with the ”worst” ratings. In time, we’ll see if Sega’s ratings are most effective as a regulating mechanism — or as a sales tool.