The Video Standards Council in the U.K. predicts that the rise of the global marketplace for videogames will eventually lead to the end of mandatory games ratings.
You may have heard recently that GOG, after experiencing some unspecified difficulties with using IPs to determine user locations, switched to a system of regional self-reporting, which is to say that if you tell it that you live in, for example, the United States, it assumes that you do actually live in the United States and not in, say, Australia, where you might have to pay more to get a censored version of a videogame. And although the change was in no way intended to assist users in circumventing national content restrictions, it is theoretically possible that such a thing could happen if some unscrupulous customer was to falsely report his location.
That, according to the Video Standards Council, was likely the first step toward the eventual end of mandatory videogame ratings. "It seems inevitable that such systems will have an impact on the way national regulators control online content, though the more authoritarian regimes won't have any qualms about shutting down a site if they deem it necessary," the VSC told Eurogamer. "However, the more benign censorship/ratings organizations will probably move away from the mandatory model and replace it with an advisory system which puts the onus on consumers to make informed buying decisions through the provision of detailed consumer information."
The threat of legal action to stop region-free digital distribution is unlikely, the VSC said, "since any national restrictions are very difficult to enforce where, for example, content is delivered from a foreign server." In GOG's case, the company is owned by CD Projekt, which is based in Warsaw, Poland.
But even if videogame ratings in liberal democracies move away from mandatory enforcement, the VSC believes that rating agencies will remain relevant. "It may be that the nature of censorship and ratings will change to a more advisory-centered system, but ratings systems continue to provide consumers - particularly parents of children - with very useful content information which we know they find very helpful indeed," the agency said. "We believe the public tends to trust the judgment and advice of the more independent, established and respected ratings organizations and will continue to do so."
In the U.S., unlike most Western nations, videogame ratings aren't legally enforceable, as videogames, like books, music and movies, are considered protected speech under the First Amendment. Instead, the Entertainment Software Rating Board works in conjunction with publishers and retailers to operate a voluntary system which can include hefty fines for violations.