223: Obsolescence Pending: Rating the ESRB

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Obsolescence Pending: Rating the ESRB

To some observers, it may seem like the ESRB has hit its stride: It boasts some of the best compliance rates of any ratings system in the U.S., and parents seem to find the ratings genuinely useful. But as Sara Grimes notes, the Board may be willfully ignorant of the challenges it faces just around the corner.

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I have to disagree with this article. If the ESRB had to rate chat restrictions etc, then any game without restrictions would become an automatic AO, right?

You make some good points, but I think you missed what is possibly the biggest challenge they need to face in the near future: The iPhone App Store. It has three major problems for the ESRB.

1) Apple doesn't require ratings for games to be sold on their App Store (though they have to meet Apple's own ratings scheme). Therefore, the vast majority of them won't be rated.

2) These are primarily games with lower (or no) budgets and independent developers. Even if they wanted to get the game rated, a $2500 fee from the ESRB can be a significant burden on a game like this. Not to mention all the rather ridiculous restrictions they put on marketing.

3) The ESRB could not even come close to being able to handle the volume of independent games being released these days.

This problem is not unique to the App Store, but that's the biggest example of it right now. Microsoft's Xbox Indie Games are another example, though not with nearly the same amount of impact.

More interestingly, the PSP Mini games being released for the PSP Go do seem to have a requirement for ESRB ratings - and the equivalent game for the iPhone is being sold for a significantly lower price. I would bet that, at some point, Sony is going to seriously consider dropping this requirement if they really want to try to compete.

And how is the ESRB supposed to confront the problem of pre-emptively reviewing non-static content, if not by declining to review it? Perhaps they ought to use a time machine? The article offers no solutions.

Rate online interactions?

We would need a new rating then, because I think the highest rating (In the U.S. at least) is Adults Only, and that wouldn't be enough for the internet. Every time I'm on xbox live, PSN, or Steam, I always seem to run into the homophobic racist child who thinks he can rap/sing.

"Online interactions may or may not connect your child with ignorant homophobic racists who may or may not turn children into one of them"

"This game allows custom content that may or may not contain images of explicit violence, nutity, sexual themes, alchohol, ect. that your child may or may not download at his choice.

Yeah, a "challenge" seems to be an understatement.

Nutcase:
And how is the ESRB supposed to confront the problem of pre-emptively reviewing non-static content, if not by declining to review it? Perhaps they ought to use a time machine? The article offers no solutions.

The article never claimed to offer solutions.

The ESRB has done a great job in the past but unfortunately due to the ever-changing world of gaming it too needs to change. I wish I knew how to help, but I have no solutions to offer these guys. Great article.

The ESRB needs to stay, probably now more than ever. The ESRB has been gracing boxes for years and it provides a vague description of what is in the game for any worried parents out there - and because of the longevity of the ESRB - the parents know what to look out for.

Getting rid of the ESRB will only serve to confuse the responsible parents.

However, if there is an alternative form of censorship is to be made. May I suggest an in-game censorship option?

Games like Duke Nukem had the ability to turn off blood and sexual images. With the power of modern consoles and computers - perhaps various levels of parental censorship can be set. Turning off sexual images while leaving the blood and gore to keep the gamer happy.

However, where my suggestion fails is that there are so many parents out there who are too lazy to do spend some time with their kids and actually take control of their children's lives in terms of what they can and cannot see. So I wouldn't expect the parent to spend 5-10 minutes setting censorship options.

Alas, when it comes to online gaming - the parents are once again too absent to listen what their little darlings are saying into their headsets.

I should end this post before I start ranting on about younger gamers. :)

The ESRB, like all ratings systems, are simply outdated, unworkable and obsolete.

Such systems hark back to the days when cinema was new- when media was scarce, needed expensive equipment to be shown at all and international travel was a rare luxury for the super-rich. The idea that media could be controlled in such a fashion was at least feasable.

The second somebody invented VHS, however, it was all over.

Nowadays we have hundreds of television channels, plus video-on-demand, we're onto our third major physical home video format, we have both cheap video production equipment plus the free-for-all that is the internet and if push comes to shove in most of the western world you can get to a foreign country on pocket change. Suddenly, the idea that ratings boards have any real control over anything is laughable- get overly-restricitve on a title? It's off to peer-to-peer we go for the uncut version.

Unworkability comes into the equation when you think about simply how much media that is to cover, as has been pointed out upthread- there's no way in hell the world's ratings boards can get enough manpower in to do it.

And that assumes that people are going to pay to have their stuff rated- independent developers simply can't afford to pay for the ratings, and amateur or hobbyist developers aren't going to- if I want to work in the games industry, I'm not throwing money away on a rating for the little work sample I threw together for my online portfolio. Even if I am, I'm going to go to my local ratings board (in my case, PEGI) and not every single one in every single country.

Finally, there's far better information on the content of games out there on the internet than the ESRB can ever hope to offer- it's easy to sneer at those Christian websites that rate media and immediately say nobody should watch Harry Potter because it promotes witchcraft, but that site will be ten times more relevant to a number of people than the ESRB will ever be, and that's before you get to the idea of pulling up footage from a games site that's covered the title (or even putting a bit of effort in and sourcing a demo) and making a decision for yourself.

The best any of these boards can hope for in the future is to step back and take a more advisory role, and make people take responsibility for their own actions.

Please don't encourage the ESRB to rate online interactions.

Some asshat will just log in, find a way around the chat filters or whatever, and say something that the ESRB rating has promised your child will never hear while playing this game.

There is no positive way to spin voice chat. There is no positive way to spin text messages. There is no way to prove that no one will ever make a giant dick out of crates in LittleBigPlanet, upload a photograph of their balls, or ask you to cyber in Second Life Teen.

Putting a label on a game promising that this stuff will never happen is just *begging* for trouble later when you are inevitably proven wrong.

It would be like Wal-Mart promising no customer will ever cuss at another customer while in the store.

It can't be done. It's impossible to enforce. Therefore, it's insane to promise.

The ESRB does what it claims to do: Gives you an idea of what to expect from a game when purchasing it from a retail outlet. By the very fact that we have heard of the Escapist, we are not the target audience for it -- we have ways of finding out about the games that do not exist when encountering the game in a store. As long as this audience exists -- as long as there are people who will shop for video games for other people -- then ratings have merit.

If you're HERE, then they're not FOR you.

Also: I have no problem with criticizing the problems it faces, but it seems mean-spirited to blame them for not attempting to assign a rating to uncontrollable interactions, without offering some hint of what would be considered a better path.

Ratings are, and have always been, impossible to judge properly.

Take The Sims, for example - there is a cheat that makes sims naked, which gave the game its 15+ rating:

Enable the boolProp testingCheatsEnabled true code. Then, hold [Shift] and click on a teen Sim. Select the tab that reads "Change Suit". Change into maternity clothes and your Sim will walk around naked. Note: They can go to public lots like this, but they will change into their normal or work outfits when they go to school or work. Note: Even if the censorgridsize 0 is off, there will be no pixels.
(taken from http://www.gamewinners.com/DOSWIN/blsims2.htm)

However, you are extremely unlikely to do this unless you have actively searched on the internet, and then only if you have decided to use the cheat. This renders the rating almost useless, as the only time this will be done is when you want it to happen, instead of CoD games and the like where blood, swearing and violence are almost inevitable.

Another point you made was about the chat in the online games. I think that this is slightly comparable to a heckler in a theatre.

Sure, you could take your child to a kiddy play, but that doesn't mean that there will be no strange man in front of you, swearing and yelling 'SEX!' at the top of his voice.

You may say that this is a stupid analogy, as the police will quickly get in on the act, but that is why there should be mods, acting as the fuzz in their absence, or the already created 'block' button, to make games better for all.

Finally, I really think that there should be more options like 'turn off blood' or 'remove sexually explicit scenes', as Gunner 51 has already pointed out, to stop these things in their tracks, and then the ERSB, for a wholly different reason, can be taken away.

Didn't have time to read the article, but I must say from my experience the ESRB are shit.

They rate games far too highly for just having violence in them, where as the BBFC give it a more sensible rating. The BBFC being the government controlled one here in Britain.

Rather pissed that they've now changed systems. I'm 15 by the way.

I just don't understand why ESBR don't say you kid needs to be above a certain age to play online. Think about social networking sites, or think about the Escapist. Don't you have to be atleast 13 years old to get an account on here? I think you do.

What the ESRB could do is set a rating for the online based on what the rating for the game is. An M for Mature game should not be played by a someone under the age of 18 at all, so therefore the online should be rated M for Mature.

Take a game like Shrek, if it is(?) an online game, then I think you'd have less jerky douchebag people than on a game like Halo. That would mean that the kid playing a Shrek game would probably be MUCH less likely to get a nasty voice or text message than say a kid playing Halo.

I have to disagree about the ESRB obsolescence. The main argument is that since the ESRB can't rate online interactions that is is becoming obsolete. Well how on earth could you do that? How do you rate a varible? I've played Uno on XBox Live and have heard some really vile language, and I've played Halo 3 games where at the end everyone was talking about how awesome of a game that was and no one said a single bad word.

So should Uno be rated AO by the ESRB then? No it shouldn't. Personally I think the ESRB should ask that game companies put up a warning screen before you play online letting you know that there are a bunch of idiots and jerks out there that want to do nothing more than try to shock you with their attempts at colorful language. Also put an additional warning on the box. So when Mommy and Daddy hear about what's going on when little Johhny plays online the ESRB can say "Look! We warned you here and here and here that this could happen."

Granted that would mean that a parent might actually have to read the freakin' box before buying it.... That's another story for another time though.

beemoh:
The ESRB, like all ratings systems, are simply outdated, unworkable and obsolete.

Such systems hark back to the days when cinema was new- when media was scarce, needed expensive equipment to be shown at all and international travel was a rare luxury for the super-rich. The idea that media could be controlled in such a fashion was at least feasable.

The second somebody invented VHS, however, it was all over.

Nowadays we have hundreds of television channels, plus video-on-demand, we're onto our third major physical home video format, we have both cheap video production equipment plus the free-for-all that is the internet and if push comes to shove in most of the western world you can get to a foreign country on pocket change. Suddenly, the idea that ratings boards have any real control over anything is laughable- get overly-restricitve on a title? It's off to peer-to-peer we go for the uncut version.

Unworkability comes into the equation when you think about simply how much media that is to cover, as has been pointed out upthread- there's no way in hell the world's ratings boards can get enough manpower in to do it.

And that assumes that people are going to pay to have their stuff rated- independent developers simply can't afford to pay for the ratings, and amateur or hobbyist developers aren't going to- if I want to work in the games industry, I'm not throwing money away on a rating for the little work sample I threw together for my online portfolio. Even if I am, I'm going to go to my local ratings board (in my case, PEGI) and not every single one in every single country.

Finally, there's far better information on the content of games out there on the internet than the ESRB can ever hope to offer- it's easy to sneer at those Christian websites that rate media and immediately say nobody should watch Harry Potter because it promotes witchcraft, but that site will be ten times more relevant to a number of people than the ESRB will ever be, and that's before you get to the idea of pulling up footage from a games site that's covered the title (or even putting a bit of effort in and sourcing a demo) and making a decision for yourself.

The best any of these boards can hope for in the future is to step back and take a more advisory role, and make people take responsibility for their own actions.

The ESRB doesn't try to control anything.

It exists as a rating system so that parents have a vague idea what kind of games are right for their kids.

That IS an advisory role.

Dark Templar:
The ESRB doesn't try to control anything.

It exists as a rating system so that parents have a vague idea what kind of games are right for their kids.

That IS an advisory role.

Yup, and I think that is the only proper role for ESRB, but Sara Grimes thinks it is a "regulator" and wants it to be:

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.
...
the system has veered off course.

VanityGirl:
I just don't understand why ESBR don't say you kid needs to be above a certain age to play online. Think about social networking sites, or think about the Escapist. Don't you have to be atleast 13 years old to get an account on here? I think you do.

That's because there is some sort of law in the USA that doesn't allow sites to collect information from people younger than 13 without parental consent. That 13 and over rule is on many, many sites, not just the escapist.

If the ESRB can't rate online interactions, this does not make a major problem for parents. All it takes is the severing of one little connection and wala! No internet for the game, no worries about potential contact with weirdoes.

It's not that hard. And anyway, once most kids figure out how to use the internet with their machines, most parents will be all right with them playing online.

Dark Templar:
The ESRB doesn't try to control anything.

It exists as a rating system so that parents have a vague idea what kind of games are right for their kids.

That IS an advisory role.

I'm more thinking in terms of ratings boards as a whole (although you could argue that as the ESRB is aware of the effect an AO rating has, they do have some controlling influence) not every nation has the same rules relating to media censorship the US has.

Wow - Great discussion so far!

I think it's pretty unlikely that the ESRB ever will rate online interactions, but I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that the rating would be an automatic AO either. If we're thinking that the ESRB is mainly used and useful to parents and kids, it's important to remember that kids' games are already heavily restricted...both online and offline. While there are challenges with rating the online interactions in a game like Club Penguin, I nonetheless think that the ESRB could safely give it an E rating (at least a conditional one) based on the fact that the chat and actions are extremely limited and exclude the vast, vast majority (all?) of the type of content that would warrant a higher rating than that. But for most games, where online interactions are allowed much more freedom, I agree that the ratings given out would probably be pretty arbitrary. That said, if the point of the ESRB is to help parents figure out which games their kids should play - having some sort of a guideline about web-enabled kids games would be useful, and likely diminish the number of complaints and general misinformation about kids getting into mature-themed online interactions without parents' consent, etc. As I say in the article - they're in a unique position here - they can actually find out what these chat restrictions/content moderation systems are, as they have amazing compliance among members of the industry.

Anyway, I'm not really arguing that the ESRB should take this approach - I think that self-ratings led by online game communities would probably work best for this kind of thing, but it's all speculation at this point anyway. The real point is, once every game rating is made irrelevant by the fact that a larger and larger portion of the game content (parts that enable online interactions) in fact is NOT rated, what use are the ratings at all. My argument is that the ratings system is floating toward oblivion.

@Nutcase - not really - but they have been given that role and portend to be, so why not call them on it?

But if you don't think the ESRB controls anything, that's a mistake too. What's Nintendo's rule about AO games? which retailers will agree to sell games that don't have an ESRB rating (which you must pay for to obtain)? there is already massive amounts of censorship going on, innovative games with mature themes that aren't even allowed to see the light of day, and indie designers have to spend huge chunks of money to get their games (often made for free) onto major console systems or sold in big box stores.

And as for iPhone apps and the new systems - I definitely see this as one of the key challenges that will bring the ESRB system down (again - just because i'm calling it a challenge doesn't mean i think the system can or should overcome it). But they're on it - can a game be sold on Wii Ware without an ESRB rating? And the org. has announced plans to expand its presence in mobile gaming to include PSPgo and iTune App Store games.

To date, however, the ESRB has only rated about 70 mobile games - I can't see how they could possibly fulfill their mandate to create a real presence in this area of gaming using their current system (let alone workforce).

@Virgil I completely and utterly agree - had I more space in the article the mobile game/direct download issues and the indie game issues would have appeared alongside the others. The indie games industry is a particularly excellent example of what can happen in a post-ESRB landscape. For years now, indie game developers have had to weigh the benefits of an ESRB rating (access to distribution, etc.) with the relatively steep cost of submission, as you've outlined above. Although the ESRB offers small budget games a reduced rate, it's still more than a lot of independents can afford. Some indie developers opt to proceed without the ESRB rating, distributing their games online or through niche retailers. Others rate themselves, highlighting any content that might be deemed child-inappropriate. In many, many cases this self-rating system (which the ESRB is supposed to be anyway, right?) has worked quite well...I think that very few developers want kids/parents to play games that aren't for them, and it can be part of the marketing of the game to describe how scary/mature/violent it is.

I am very interested in seeing where the indie ratings attempts go in the future, and how they might be used as a model for a better system (this is all based on the assumption that kids and parents still need a system, which I think they do, even if the larger gamer community feels a bit stifled by it). One attempt is TIGRS, The Independent Game Rating System (http://www.tigrs.org/), a free, self-rating program for internet-available games. TIGRS draws crowd-sourcing in an attempt to create a more responsive system, and i'd love to see an alternative to the ESRB that parents could contribute to themselves.

What I like most about these particular developments is that they don't just present challenges to the system, but are started to provide alternatives.

@karkashan i'm of the mind that kids shouldn't be banned from online experiences just because they need some extra protection and consideration. there are already a large number of developers putting considerable effort into making their online interactions kid-safe... it might not always be ideal for the kids' play (and believe me, some of the restrictions are insane), but at least if parents could get some real guidelines for figuring out which games contain the right safety mechanisms for them (e.g. live moderation services vs. programmed restrictions, etc.). there are so many benefits associated with social play - pulling the plug is certainly an option, but i don't think it's in the best interest of the kids or their play. sadly, many parents still don't understand anything about gaming - they'll see one game with some bad language or sex talk and then disconnect the Wii forever. so sweeping - so misinformed - so sad for the kids who want to play mario kart online.

again, though, i don't think the esrb could really fill this role - their past track record for understanding the nuances of content and language is terrible. i'd hate to see what they would come up with if they were given the responsibility of rating content without massive, massive restructuring and consultations with kids' online game designers/e-moderation experts.

I don't see the point of the article if the author is not going to offer suggestions on how they could solve this problem. It's not just the ESRB that is in trouble, if this is a real issue, it is everyone who is in trouble. For the ESRB to be obsolete, that would suggest that there is some entity that is capable of replacing it.

From my perspective, it is not a solvable problem. Period.

The only area where I could see the ESRB being able to apply a quantitative rating to a game would be by rating the type and amount of oversight the company gives to the online portion of the game. For example, if you have simple keyword chat filtering, that's pretty low level. If you have a human actively monitoring many channels, that's quite another. If user generated content is reviewed by the company before it's posted, that's another level of oversight.

The bottom line is, though, that no matter what a company does, unless they completely remove your ability to contact other humans, you're always going to find someone who wants to screw around. I'm sure you can find people using Hello Kitty Online for Cybersex.

Nutcase:
And how is the ESRB supposed to confront the problem of pre-emptively reviewing non-static content, if not by declining to review it? Perhaps they ought to use a time machine? The article offers no solutions.

So true. What do you think of the possibility of reviewing the moderation and screening systems? If not the ever changing content, then what about the mechanisms in place to filter out certain words, actions, content forms, etc. I haven't spent much time thinking through the solutions...a major weakness of much of my academic work as well, I'm afraid...but am very interested in this, esp. within the context of an alternative, and much more "democratic" system (one that includes players themselves, as well as both indie and major players in the industry).

SaintPeter:

The only area where I could see the ESRB being able to apply a quantitative rating to a game would be by rating the type and amount of oversight the company gives to the online portion of the game. For example, if you have simple keyword chat filtering, that's pretty low level. If you have a human actively monitoring many channels, that's quite another. If user generated content is reviewed by the company before it's posted, that's another level of oversight.

The bottom line is, though, that no matter what a company does, unless they completely remove your ability to contact other humans, you're always going to find someone who wants to screw around. I'm sure you can find people using Hello Kitty Online for Cybersex.

Also thinking along those lines (reviewing moderation) - this type of discussion wades a bit too far into speculation for what i had in mind for this article, but i am well aware that outlining solutions is much more helpful than providing criticism alone. but I suppose the point of the article was to dispel recent press and analysis claiming that the ESRB had finally hit its stride - they've been getting a lot of accolades, esp. around their birthday this summer, and i saw this as an opportunity to highlight some (not all) of the main reasons why i think their current success will be (already is) short lived. so, my intention was to be critical, not to offer solutions, but that doesn't mean i'm not interested in finding out more about alternative models and possible solutions. my own feeling is that players (including child players) and parents themselves have a lot more to offer in this regard.

Royas:

VanityGirl:
I just don't understand why ESBR don't say you kid needs to be above a certain age to play online. Think about social networking sites, or think about the Escapist. Don't you have to be atleast 13 years old to get an account on here? I think you do.

That's because there is some sort of law in the USA that doesn't allow sites to collect information from people younger than 13 without parental consent. That 13 and over rule is on many, many sites, not just the escapist.

The ESRB does claim to require COPPA compliance (that rule about collecting or displaying personal info of people younger than 13), but it's not clear how this factors into their E and E10 ratings. Actually, VanityGirl, I think that this is what a lot of online games have decided to do...officially "ban" kids to avoid having to deal with all the legal requirements and parental scrutiny. I suppose this is a solution if you don't think kids should be allowed to play online -- i don't really think this is fair or even feasible.

I have a few Ideas.
For online interactions there could be a new rating category.
Moderated/unmoderated user-generated content.
Moderated/unmoderated player chat
For multiplayer online games maybe a special moderated chat line for kiddies. It would be moderated, but the rules would be soo strict that it wouldn't be a problem moderating 2% of the overall game chat. I know if they had this most people A. dont want to talk to little kids and B. don't like super strict speech guidlines. That means they wouldn't have to moderate 1 million people chatting online at once, more like 10,000.

Very pointed observations in your article, Miss Grimes. I have little to say on the matter other than agreement, so I'm going to comment on something else:

I do concur that the ESRB, in the greater scheme of things, doesn't control anything. They are a creature of the ESA, lest we forget; and the membership of that parent organization includes the console manufacturers themselves. What's more, when explaining the tendency for certain types of content to always produce particular ratings, the ESRB has repeatedly reminded us that they don't create the social standards of our society (however bizarre) but that they merely follow them.

However, I would contend that the ESRB is at least complicit in the de facto censorship of content in the games industry, chiefly through the farcical "Adults Only" rating.

The console manufacturers and retailers may be the ones who summarily ban AO titles from commercial release, but when I look at the rating, I find myself hard-pressed to dismiss the ESRB's role in this nonsense. The "Mature" rating supposedly covers games appropriate for individuals seventeen years of age or older while AO is somehow exclusive to those of us at least eighteen years of age? Absurd.

How can any entertainment ratings system possibly be accurate enough to advise consumers on suitability of product content to within an age gap of one year? Even more ridiculous, it is implicit in the mission and rhetoric of the ESRB that the suggestions their ratings offer are universally applicable to all families. The perceived difference between M and AO is essentially arbitrary, exactly as the ESRB has designed it.

For all intents and purposes, the AO rating is nothing more than the broom that the ESRB uses to sweep potential troublemakers under the rug.

Well, it's impossible for the ESRB to rate the online. I play CSS a fair amount. I've heard what could only be kids playin the game. And it has a teen rating. I've chatted to a hell of a lot of people. Most of them are okay, but the language that would come from some are something that would put a Billy Connoly performance to shame. I don't know if it's unique to Britain, but parents just don't care. The problem with rating online is that there will always be that one cunt somewhere. It's as inevitable as the flipping tides that said cunt will cause an uproar when he appears in a game for minors making obscene references.

It's the ESRB's job to warn the parents, and the parents should consider these warnings. A rating is, in my opinion more along the lines of a maturity guide. If you think that your kid's mature enough that he won't be affected by the contents of the game, then it's okay to buy it. Don't want them online? Disconnect whatever the kid's using from the internets before letting them use it. It's simple logic. If the parents don't want their kids online, it's down to THE PARENTS To enforce this. Not a ratings board, not a shop, not the kid. The parent. I think the ESRB can only not rate online. Rating online is impossible. The sheer number of idiots (and no, I'm not referring to the parents, folks) out there make it as futile as explaining advanced mathematics to a special needs Year Two class and expecting them to pass the test.

Sara Grimes:
...but I suppose the point of the article was to dispel recent press and analysis claiming that the ESRB had finally hit its stride - they've been getting a lot of accolades, esp. around their birthday this summer, and i saw this as an opportunity to highlight some (not all) of the main reasons why i think their current success will be (already is) short lived. so, my intention was to be critical, not to offer solutions, but that doesn't mean i'm not interested in finding out more about alternative models and possible solutions. my own feeling is that players (including child players) and parents themselves have a lot more to offer in this regard.

I disagree with you on a few points here.
1) I think the ESRB has been amazingly successful and deserves the accolades they are receiving. Based on the compliance reports from last year, it appeared that the ESRB rating were applied better than the MPAA's ratings. IE: kids were blocked from buying inappropriate contents more than getting into 'R' rated movies.

2) As someone else pointed out earlier in the thread, the MPAA is not criticized if someone sneaks into a 'G' rated movie and shouts out bad things. I don't see it as being the ESRB's role to rate or police that.

3) Based on 2), If no one expects them to do what is essentially an impossible task, I don't see how they're going to be obsolete in the future. They will continue to provide a valuable service in rating the content of games. For non-gamer parents, this is a valuable tool.

--

It just seems cheap to me to snark the ESRB for doing what they say they'll do and then predicting that they will wither and die because they cannot do the impossible.

Is the MPAA less relevant because people aren't paying to have their videos rated before they post them on YouTube? Or because it didn't warn theater-goers that they might overhear someone engaging in risqué conversation in the seats behind them? I find this critique of the ESRB to be equally absurd.

Regardless of how it may appear to an uninformed consumer's point of view, the ESRB is not a regulatory body established to label every piece of software ever created. It is an advisory committee, established to provide content-based age-appropriateness suggestions for mass-produced games from major publishers, based on a subjective but (hopefully) consistent set of criteria. That is how it was always supposed to work and that is how it does work, no matter how those suggestions may be enforced elsewhere in the games industry

The ESRB received the praise and accolades noted in the article for doing what it was set up to do, not for overstepping its mission or interfering with First Amendment rights, as the author seems to hint she thinks it now should consider. As long as there are kids who want to play those games, and as long as there are parents who are concerned about the content those kids may access, the ESRB has its relevant purpose.

slopeslider:
I have a few Ideas.
For online interactions there could be a new rating category.
Moderated/unmoderated user-generated content.
Moderated/unmoderated player chat
For multiplayer online games maybe a special moderated chat line for kiddies. It would be moderated, but the rules would be soo strict that it wouldn't be a problem moderating 2% of the overall game chat. I know if they had this most people A. dont want to talk to little kids and B. don't like super strict speech guidlines. That means they wouldn't have to moderate 1 million people chatting online at once, more like 10,000.

That actually doesn't sound like a bad Idea. If they were to display a prominent warning about 'User made un/moderated content', specifically stating that 'users of varying ages can createj online content, which may result in inappropriate content being generated and played before it attracts moderator attention', then it would go a long way towards helping to assess the interactions that they cannot (but probably can hazard a guess) predict.

What they would need to do is put out a psa, or something, a short commercial, to be aired on the big channels--wouldn't have to be long, just a minute or so, alerting parents to the new type of content, and to look at the rating on the box, and that they should use their judgement when purchasing--Games rated T and M might feature more mature subject matter in the online play from both adolescents and adults, which would expose their children to such. It could also encourage parents to ask a salesperson at a retailer about the game, whether it would be appropriate or not for thier child to play.

Stinking Kevin:

The ESRB received the praise and accolades noted in the article for doing what it was set up to do, not for overstepping its mission or interfering with First Amendment rights, as the author seems to hint she thinks it now should consider. As long as there are kids who want to play those games, and as long as there are parents who are concerned about the content those kids may access, the ESRB has its relevant purpose.

Hmmm - are you gleaning this from the forum posts, or from the article? Because my article merely addresses the ways in which the ESRB has elected to respond or not respond to new developments in game design and game culture, and the future relevance of its existing ratings system... I am certainly not advocating for censorship, and personally have a huge problem with the often arbitrary mobilization of the AO rating and the current silence on the ways in which AO games are shut out of (many) major consoles and distribution systems. In fact, one of the main concerns with the ESRB refusing to step in on behalf of the industry AS A WHOLE in its offloading of key responsibilities onto console manufacturers and individual game developers is that this runs a high risk of furthering censorship rather than preventing it. So no, that's definitely not what this article about...the online interactions issue is just one among many issues that the ESRB has remained silent on, the potential for new forms of censorship through non-transparent and undisclosed "self"-ratings is, as you point out, very tangible and strengthens the overall argument of the article.

Or did you mean the first amendment rights of children who should be allowed to swear and talk about mature content? Because THAT is a very interesting ethical debate that I would very much like to hear more on.

Does the MPAA become less relevant as a result of new distribution channels (youtube, snagfilms.com) that allow film makers to bypass the stranglehold that the MPAA has on cinemas, retailers and movie rental service, which together oblige movies to be rated so that they can arbitrarily censor non-status quo content through the use of their extremely controversial NC-17 rating? Absolutely! And thank goodness too! Are parents likely in need of a more responsive self-ratings system that will help them navigate this? Yes!

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