A new study by the Competitive Enterprise Institute describe the ESRB videogame rating system as “better than most” and suggests that government involvement in these systems results in a negative impact on the regulated media.

According to a GamePolitics report, the study, entitled “Politically Determined Entertainment Ratings and How to Avoid Them,” claims that the best rating systems in any media – videogames, comics, movies, music, radio or television – have three elements: They describe, rather than prescribe, what the media should contain; they are intended specifically for their particular media format; and they were created with little or no input from government.

Under the ESRB system, according to the report, “Parents can tell, at a glance, exactly what they might find objectionable in a videogame,” and goes on to say that despite threats of regulation from Congress, the current scheme “has worked well for parents, children and software producers.” The success of the voluntary ESRB system is contrasted with the FCC regulations on radio, which “has done nothing to give parents greater control over their children’s radio listening habits,” and the Comics Code, which is says “became so incredibly specific that it once forbade comics from featuring werewolves, vampires and zombies,” and ultimately collapsed in the 1990s.

“Radio content regulation and the Comics Code fail because they provide very little information – none at all in the case of radio – and attempt to set particular limits over media that, by their very nature, should facilitate a wide range of different types of experiences for a wide range of different types of audiences,” the report says. “Neither takes the nature of the medium into account.”

“Ultimately, ratings systems cannot influence the content of what gets produced in the long run. Even the highly prescriptive Comics Code did nothing to stop the emergence of graphic novels with adult themes and situations. Those who want to “clean up” media without unconstitutional government censorship will likely do best to simply avoid buying cultural products they dislike,” the report says. “Well thought-out ratings systems, particularly those shaped through market forces rather than government mandates, can prove a valuable tool for parents, but they are just that – tools. No ratings system can replace good parenting.”

The full “Politically Determined Entertainment Ratings and How to Avoid Them” report is available at the Competitive Enterprise Institute website. (PDF format)

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