Self-Regulatory Generals


Gamepolitics has a great write-up detailing what went down at the videogame hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday. The panel of senators seemed pretty hell-bent on taking potshots at the FTC for not throwing the book at Take-Two over Hot Coffee, but what stuck out for me was testimony by Patricia Vance of the ESRB, and follow-ups from David Walsh of NIMF and Kim Thompson, a Harvard researcher who found that the ESRB doesn’t consistently follow its own rating guidelines.

What struck me most was this passage:

For her part, researcher Kim Thompson suggested that the ESRB might do well to actually play the games which it rates (the ESRB relies primarily on game publishers to tell the ratings body what type of content games contain).

That’s when it hit me. It’s what’s had me sitting on the fence regarding Hot Coffee, and occasionally nodding my head when the “bad guys” start passing stupid laws. It’s a question that plagues me wherever I encounter situations like this:

In what world does it make sense to let an industry regulate itself?

Take a look at the meat packing industry of the early 1900s to see what happens when checks and balances are left up to the people whose paychecks depend entirely on “net profit.” Clemenceau said, “War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men,” and that statement applies here. When you’re paid to be a warrior, choosing peace can cost you your job, which is why civilians control the military – for better or worse. But if war, which determines a nation’s ultimate survival, is too important to be left to the generals; why do we leave so much regulation, which speaks to a nation’s core values, to insiders?

This is how the ESRB works:

Publishers join the group and then apply to have their games rated by “professionally-trained raters,” who then look at a gameplay video assembled by the publisher (or marketer, or tech guy). According to the ESRB rules, the video needs to contain the most violent and sexually suggestive characters and situations in the game. From there, the rater assigns his rating; then the rating gets stamped on boxes and shipped off to Wal-Mart.

In the case of a violation, like Hot Coffee, publishers have to pay fines and face other penalties, or they’ll get kicked out of and sued by the ESRB for breaching their membership contract.

Straightforward, no? But it’s deeper than that. The ESRB maintains its budget and pays its staff using money from the membership dues and penalties paid by the same publishers it rates. If a game were to get an “AO” rating and not show up in most retail stores, the people financially backing a game like that could lose considerable amounts of money, and maybe even not come up with enough scratch to pay next year’s ESRB dues. Combine this with Kim Thompson’s findings that the ESRB doesn’t consistently apply its own rules, and it’s not hard to see where things can get rotten.

It makes it a bit harder to get upset with senators calling for the FTC to bare its teeth, or doing the responsible thing and trying to step in on the public’s behalf to accomplish the ESRB’s stated goal: keep adult-oriented games away from kids. Even if they’re as misguided as the folks trying to regulate rock ‘n’ roll or comic books or drinking.

Of course, that’s not to say I’m a fan of the government imposing a rating system on videogames. In fact, I’m against rating systems in general. If the ESRB went away and nothing stepped into the money/power vacuum, I’d be a happy Joe. But if we’re going to do parents’ jobs for them, we at the very least owe it to ourselves to make sure the ratings are fairly applied by civilians, not generals.

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