THE RATING GAME

Video game rating systems are a useful tool, but they don't lessen the need for customer service, supermarket retailers told SN.While many retailers laud video game labels, they say customer service is just as, or even more, important in helping parents select suitable material for their children.Two separate rating systems -- one for computer software games and one for console (cartridge) games --

Video game rating systems are a useful tool, but they don't lessen the need for customer service, supermarket retailers told SN.

While many retailers laud video game labels, they say customer service is just as, or even more, important in helping parents select suitable material for their children.

Two separate rating systems -- one for computer software games and one for console (cartridge) games -- were implemented last year in a voluntary industry effort to flag products containing "adult" titles, and material unsuitable for a certain age group. Console game ratings were developed by the Interactive Digital Software Association, Washington, while software program ratings were created by the Software Publishers Association, also based in Washington.

Since the programs run on a voluntary basis, not all games are rated. Because of this, retailers said the systems are inconsistent. Retailers also said many consumers have difficulty understanding what the ratings mean.

"Every single game is not rated, which is why there is not a lot of awareness," said Denise Hasenfus, video coordinator at Angeli's, Menominee, Mich. "And the ratings aren't explained very well."

As a result, customers often look to store personnel to find out if a title contains violence. "Customer service is more important than the rating because no one knows what the rating means," Hasenfus said.

In addition to the industry ratings, a third party now endorses products free of sex and violence: The Dove Foundation, Grand Rapids, Mich. Dove recently announced that it has extended its seal of approval to video games. Dove's approval seal is granted to titles it deems suitable for family viewing.

Brenda Vanover, video coordinator at K-VA-T Food Stores, Grundy, Va., said the rating systems are an asset to her stores. All of K-VA-T's game rentals are rated, she said.

"We are more of a family-type video operation. I think that more of our customers go to our family section [than other areas]. They are more aware of the ratings," she said.

On the other hand, Clifford Feiock, video coordinator at Nash Finch Co., Minneapolis, said consumers don't seem to pay attention to the industry-sponsored systems.

"From what I've seen, it doesn't seem to have a lot of importance in renting or buying decisions," Feiock said. "You still see kids younger than the age group that it is specified for renting those action titles, even with mom and dad standing right next to them."

However, Feiock said he sees the new Dove system as an additional tool for parents.

"I'm very positive about the program for our customers with children. It gives them a choice they can depend on when trying to pick family programming they know will be safe. It is really tough to know if even a PG movie will be suitable," Feiock said. "So it is nice that Dove has done the backup on that to help us all make those decisions."

The program is "not being forced on anyone," he noted. "It is just another option for people."

To participate in the Dove program, retailers pay a fee of $100 per year, with additional fees for additional stores.

Whether or not the investment has paid off in increased video sales is uncertain. But Feiock said it has other benefits.

"I've had a hard time seeing where it added $100 in extra rentals, but if you look to offer the right choices for parents in your stores, then it is definitely worth it," Feiock said. "We've had comments from people in our stores thanking us for the Dove program."

Other retailers said that while the ratings may help customers in product selection, it hasn't boosted sales or shifted purchasing trends. Six- and 7-year-olds still rent violent action games such as Mortal Kombat, said Denise Darnell, video supervisor at Southeast Foods, Monroe, La.

"I don't think we have been affected much by the rating. For the parents who really watch what they [children] play and watch, it has been helpful," Darnell said. "But many customers let their kids play a game because they think it is just a game and doesn't affect them in any way. And then there are parents who just don't care. We have people who let their children watch R-rated movies."

Southeast Foods had been involved in the Dove program for films, but discontinued it after a year, Darnell said. "It didn't seem to be that beneficial to our customers. Most of them know what they could watch anyway.

"The ones that really pay attention to that pay attention to the ratings anyway. And it was kind of expensive . . . so we decided not to do it."

Arthur I. Pober, executive director of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, Washington, which represents game manufacturers, said the number of rated cartridge games has grown from 150 in December 1994 to more than 1,400 today. He said the board just finished a primer to help parents understand the interactive software ratings system. It will be available in stores at no charge this month.

Meanwhile, a Chicago-based parent-teacher group prepared a "report card" on how well the industry is responding to the games rating movements. The report card gave an A-minus to the console game industry. The computer games industry, meanwhile, received a B-minus, in part because it rated only 340-plus titles.

Steven Balkam, executive vice president of the Recreational Software Advisory Council, Cambridge, Mass., said the software games industry is making more of an effort to rate its product.

"I think that the software industry has, to a certain extent, come along way from a year before [when it received an F in a previous performance assessment]," Balkam said.

What will help in the effort is an increase in the number of retailers who will carry only rated games.

Steven Apple, vice president of communications and strategic planning at West Coast Entertainment, Philadelphia, said 90% of its cartridge games are rated.

"The problem is with CD-ROM," Apple said. "Some of the companies that produce these are small, and sort of run by maverick entrepreneurs who don't believe they have to go through a rating process. But perhaps that will change after they start seeing the bottom-line implications."

Democratic Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin have urged retailers not to carry game products that are not rated. Though some retailers have followed their recommendation, the parent-teacher report card gives retailers (which did not include supermarkets) a C grade for their roles in furthering the use of labels.

Apple declined to comment on the report card, but said, "In our company, the retailer has a very strong role. Because our stores have games and videos, we are used to dealing with ratings."

Apple said West Coast Entertainment's customer service personnel, whom it calls "team members," undergo training to understand the product they sell and rent. "We are aware if there is something sexually explicit or frightening in it. We know not to rent or sell that to someone who is under 18."

West Coast Entertainment welcomes the rating system, but does not depend on it to make decisions, Apple said. "We believe in our company that the parent has the ultimate authority," Apple said.