This past summer, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) celebrated its 15th birthday. I imagine the anniversary must have been met with a certain amount of relief from the organization’s members and supporters. Because along with classifying game content and doling out the ratings you find on the vast majority of commercial videogames, the ESRB has spent the past 15 years in the eye of a storm that is only now showing signs of waning. Born out of the videogame violence controversies, the ESRB has spent its lifespan at the center of an epic tug-of-war between government and industry. And now that those old controversies finally appear to be fading, a whole new set of challenges has settled in for the long haul.

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After successfully weathering moral panics, evading legislation and surviving Jack Thompson, the ESRB must now contend with something altogether different, and it might turn out to be its Achilles’ heel. Years of sameness can be grueling, but it also breeds familiarity, even mastery. Change, on the other hand, brings the unexpected, demands new tricks and reveals weak points you never knew you had. In this case, the changes are multiple: converging technologies, dissolving monopolies and a Web 2.0-infused games culture that’s going to require a lot more than the ESRB’s current disclaimer of “Online Interactions Not Rated.”

A History of Rating Violence

The ESRB came out of a joint proposal by Sega and Nintendo as a way for the industry to avoid governmental regulation while assuaging societal anxieties about kids and videogames. Public outcry around the increasingly graphic depictions of violence found in games like Mortal Kombat led to a series of congressional hearings in 1992 and 1993 and the introduction of the Video Game Rating Act in 1994. The Act stipulated that unless the game industry established its own ratings and regulatory system, the government would step in and do it for them.

This prompted the game industry to create the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), which later changed its name to the Entertainment Software Association (or ESA). The ESRB soon followed, opening for business on September 1, 1994. The main objective of the ESRB was to provide an industry-driven game content classification system that would operate on a voluntary basis and enable cooperation between game developers, retailers and consumers. One of its founding principles, as well as a key argument for keeping the system voluntary, was the promise that by enabling them to make informed choices, the ESRB system put parents back ”in charge” of their kids’ media.

For several years, however, a lack of enforceability translated into poor compliance rates among retailers. The government had given the FTC the role of official ESRB watchdog, and year after year their reports revealed the system’s failure to significantly diminish children’s access to restricted games. Studies found low levels of awareness of the ratings among parents, while T and M rated titles were often marketed directly to young children. All of this raised deep questions about the sincerity of the self-regulatory board and generated a ton of bad PR.

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.”

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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