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Obsolescence Pending: Rating the ESRB

Sara Grimes | 13 Oct 2009 11:51
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To date, this has meant that the rating given to the designed game content doesn't cover chat and other forms of player-to-player communication. That's unfortunate, because the ESRB's intimate relationship with the game industry could provide it with a unique vantage point from which to evaluate aspects of online games that are beyond the purview of other would-be raters, including the quality of the game's moderation system, programmed restrictions on chat and known player demographics. The organization is missing out on a great opportunity to provide parents and children with a resource that enables informed choices beyond the enforced restriction of filters, a noble cause given that children play more online games than any other format. The ESRB's reluctance to step in means that a large proportion of the games kids actually play aren't being rated at all.

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Of course, player interactions are no longer limited to chat. With the spread of user-generated content tools in games come all sorts of possibilities for sharing different kinds of content among players. But the ESRB has been cagey about its plans for user-generated content, and appears content to leave the bulk of the work to the game companies themselves. ESRB spokesperson Eliot Mizrachi has stated, "Just as with online-enabled games that allow features like chat, ESRB ratings cannot anticipate and therefore consider user-generated content in the ratings we assign." As with online interactions, whatever doesn't fit within the ESRB's established framework is left for others to worry about.

Finally, the industry must confront the challenges posed by technological convergence. Along with multiple game formats, we now have multiple distribution models, including Xbox Live, Steam, and the PlayStation Network, a shift that poses an immediate threat to ESRB compliance rates. The big-box game retailers that have heretofore played a crucial role in the enforcement of the ESRB rating system are slowly losing market share to digital distribution services. That means the ESRB must rely on console manufacturers and mobile service providers to act as the system's new wardens. But these sorts of relationships breed monopolies and make it all too easy for dominant players to shut out the competition through bureaucratic technicalities. The ESRB needs to ensure that it represents the industry as a whole without relying too heavily on a handful of established players to act as the authors and administrators of its policies. That path leads to redundancy.

All things considered, it's almost as if the Board is orchestrating its own obsolescence. It's abstaining from involvement in significant game trends, failing to provide guidance where it is arguably needed most and handing over key governance responsibilities to certain members of the game industry while leaving others to fend for themselves. The ESRB would have to undergo tremendous restructuring to survive the current sea change, but it seems more interested in repositioning itself as an educator than sustaining its role as regulator. So far, parents continue to use the ratings and are finding the shift helpful. But I wonder how long this will last once they realize that the system has veered off course.

Sara Grimes is a doctoral student in communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. She is also the author of Gamine Expedition, a blog about children's culture and technology.

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