Is it time for the US to scrap ESRB ratings?
Posted at 20:55 on 21st May 2007 - permalink

From a UK perspective, the voluntary age rating system used by games publishers in the US (the ESRB ratings) seems to be pretty badly broken. In the UK, virtually all commercial games are submitted to the PEGI rating system (which covers most of Europe with the exception of Germany, which has its own ultra-strict government-enforced system) which on the face of it seems analogous to the ESRB system. But games with overt violent or sexual imagery also fall under the jurisdiction of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), whose ratings are legally binding.

In practice (some early teething problems aside) this system seems to work very well. The BBFC icons are widely recognised by people who have no close knowledge of games, and retailers feel comfortable stocking adult-themed games without the fear of irate parents demanding to know who sold their little Johnny this sick filth. Meanwhile, games with innocuous content can carry PEGI ratings without incurring the delays and expense of the full BBFC treatment.

(In fact, someone should probably patiently explain the system to Keith Vaz, Rt. Hon. Member for Leicester East, who intermittently pops up in Parliament to trot out the latest Jack Thompson originated anti-games scare story, and to call for tighter controls which already exist.)

By comparison, the ESRB system has some serious shortcomings. Instead of numerical symbols (corresponding to minimum ages) used by most other media ratings systems, it employs an obscure scale based on initials (such as “M” for “Mature” and “K-A” for “Kids to Adults”). As the ESRB system was brought about by government mandate against the wishes of industry representative bodies, it seems reasonable to assume that the ratings have been deliberately designed to confuse consumers and frustrate attempts at regulation. (The sort of thing the tobacco industry would do.)

The system came into existence in the early 1990s, a time when large parts of the US games industry really were investing heavily in marketing violent games to children, and didn’t yet have a proven adult audience to allow it to convincingly portray gaming as a leisure pursuit for all ages. The spirit in which the system was created seems embarrassing and anachronistic today. (Of course, this is just my take on it – it’s entirely possible that many people involved in setting up the system genuinely had the public’s best interests at heart.) As the ratings are not legally enforced anyway, it’s left to retailers to decide how it should be interpreted. The problem with this, of course, is that one of the largest retailers in the US is the ultra-censorial Wal-Mart.

The fallout from this seemingly irresponsible approach has been that the highest age rating, the “A-O” (“Adult-Only”, roughly equivalent to a BBFC “18”) has effectively been banned from all major retailers in the US. Therefore, it is almost guaranteed commercial suicide to include any content which would risk earning this stigma. Less than 1% of games rated by the ESRB receive the A-O rating. Witness the resulting spectacle of recreations of World War II where no blood is spilt, and the sanitisation (or more often, the complete disappearance) of any franchise that so much as hinted at sex, or any more complex adult themes than a dumb pastiche of gangster movies. The US games industry’s adolescent attempt to shirk responsibility for its output has resulted in creatively stifling self-censorship, the effect of which (thanks to the economic importance of the North American market) is felt in international markets as well.

The ESRB doesn’t seem to have fared any better in the other branches of its remit. Its advertising guidelines are comprehensively violated countless times in every US games mag that I’ve ever seen, where even Kirby’s latest outing is likely as not to be advertised with lurid double-page spreads of boobs, pubes and spurting neck-stumps. (This might be a slight exaggeration.) The ESRB’s other duty is apparently to ensure online privacy is upheld on games-related sites. Every corporate entity that has a web presence has been expected to adhere to privacy laws for over a decade now. I would hazard a guess that losing the ESRB banner will have zero effect on any party involved.

Will the ratings situation improve in the near future? It’s difficult to say for sure. While extremist fruitcakes like Jack Thompson are able to act as the self-appointed voices of moral rectitude, the American public equates legislation to a violation of the right to free speech, and publishers are unwilling to challenge the status quo, it seems unlikely. The Hot Coffee controversy in 2005 damaged the credibility of the ESRB, and several alternative systems have appeared on the scene, but without appropriate legal backing it’s doubtful that they will fare much better. There needs to be a reliable, transparent process which takes all parties’ needs into account and imposes the minimum amount of creative interference directly or indirectly. Or failing that there’s always online distribution…

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