223: Obsolescence Pending: Rating the ESRB

Sara Grimes

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Aug 20, 2007
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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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Nimbus

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Oct 22, 2008
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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?
 

Virgil

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Jun 13, 2002
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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.
 

Nutcase

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Dec 3, 2008
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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.
 
Apr 28, 2008
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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.
 

Somethingfake

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Oct 22, 2008
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Nutcase said:
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.
 

AvsJoe

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May 28, 2009
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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.
 

Gunner 51

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Jun 21, 2009
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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. :)
 

beemoh

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Dec 8, 2007
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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.
 

WarpZone

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Mar 9, 2008
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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.
 

Trevel

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May 27, 2008
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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.
 

Woodsey

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Aug 9, 2009
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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.
 

VanityGirl

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Apr 29, 2009
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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.
 

Monshroud

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Jul 29, 2009
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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.
 

Eldarion

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Sep 30, 2009
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beemoh said:
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.
 

Nutcase

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Dec 3, 2008
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Dark Templar said:
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.
 

Royas

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Apr 25, 2008
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VanityGirl said:
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.
 

karkashan

Corrin Married Xander
May 4, 2009
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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.
 

beemoh

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Dec 8, 2007
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Dark Templar said:
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.
 

Sara Grimes

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Aug 20, 2007
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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.