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Obsolescence Pending: Rating the ESRB

Sara Grimes | 13 Oct 2009 11:51
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Meanwhile, the ESRB became mired in an endless regulatory debate about its efficacy and governance. Most of the controversies the ESRB was drawn into during this period had a lot more to do with misconceptions than with ratings. Both the "Hot Coffee" incident and the Manhunt 2 controversy appeared to reveal fundamental flaws in the ESRB ratings process, but these were grossly exaggerated. In both cases, the questionable content was only accessible by contravening the game code. Both games were already rated "M" for Mature after the removal (albeit not very thorough) of content classified as "AO" (for Adults Only). Nonetheless, the surrounding controversy drove nearly half of all U.S. states to attempt legislation that would shift control of the ESRB over to the government. How exactly this would improve the rating system itself was always ambiguous, and none of the bills lasted long enough to find out.

The Calm Between the Storms

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Despite its many critics and forays in and out of the courts, the ESRB has soldiered on. Through it all, the organization has managed to hold onto its monopoly over game ratings (there were others, chief among them Sega's short-lived Videogame Rating Council) and stay out of any kind of enforced regulatory scenario.

Perhaps even more surprising is the organization's recent renaissance. The system now claims unprecedented compliance rates among retailers. With the 2008 introduction of detailed "rating summaries," the organization won over some of its most vocal critics, including the National Institute on Media and the Family. Some of the senators who were involved in failed videogame bills have even appeared in PSAs endorsing the ESRB. In September, the ESRB ratings system received a ringing endorsement from the FCC, which described it as the "most sophisticated, descriptive and effective ratings system devised by any major media sector in America."

Most importantly, the system appears to be connecting with its primary clientele - parents. Through partnerships with the National PTA and a website overhaul, the ESRB has made real inroads toward helping parents make informed choices for their gamer children. Awareness levels are higher than ever, and current studies show that most parents find the ratings useful. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only eight percent of parents list videogames as their main source of "concern about inappropriate content," whereas 32 percent list television.

All signs seem to indicate the ESRB has hit finally its stride, but that's likely not the case. While it's commendable that the ESRB has rectified its past mistakes, here in the present the unaddressed challenges keep on stacking up. Current trends in game technology, design and distribution pose serious threats to the ESRB's newfound relevance. Many of these challenges have already been discussed elsewhere, but when you put them all together you start to appreciate their immensity.

Here There Be Dragons

The most pressing problem is the ESRB's reluctance to address online interactions. Seeing as we're moving more and more toward online and internet-enabled games, this inevitably limits the ESRB's authority as a ratings board. Although the ESRB rates the submitted developer content within online games, these ratings are always qualified by an important disclaimer: "Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB."

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