From the Land of Ill-Advised comes a report that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the official games rating system in North America, has decided to stop doing its job. Because its job is hard.
Thus in what I deeply hope is an elaborate and belated April Fool’s trick, the ESRB is switching to a computer-based system with little or no human intervention. Games will now be rated by algorithm and, apparently, a questionnaire that draws a distinction between whimsical and non-whimsical portrayals of feces.
But does it draw a distinction between “stupid ideas” and “unspeakably stupid ideas?”
Update: I got a note from Eliot Mizrachi, Communications Director for the ESRB, and he alerted me to a significant inaccuracy in this article. Below I imply that this new system is to be used for all games; that’s not correct. It will only be applied to console and hand-held online storefronts – digitally distributed titles. Eliot said the objective was “…the need to create a scalable ratings solution that is reliable, enforceable, and that keeps our services affordable and accessible to the growing number of developers of lower-budget, digitally-delivered games..”
Apologies for the mistake.
Believe me, I of all people know that the ESRB and other ratings agencies have their work cut out for them. They’ve never had sufficient punitive authority to punish studios and publishers that deceive them; unlike movies it’s really impossible to play through a whole game before giving a rating so they depend on ten minutes of “most offensive” footage supplied at the developer’s discretion; and of course so many commercial games are released these days that keeping up with them is a nightmare.
But handing the whole job over to a computer is lunacy. With the US Supreme Court poised to make a landmark decision in Schwarzenegger vs. Entertainment Merchants Association and absolutely no assurance that said decision will result in a win for the good guys, an announcement like this is both poorly timed and poorly thought out.
Now, the ESRB is still requiring a reel from developers, showing what could be considered the “bad” stuff. But I’m unclear on what the review process for this material will be, aside from the fact that humans will not review a game until after it’s released. The ESRB is depending heavily on this new computer program that supposedly can’t be tricked, and it appears to use human involvement and the reel as backup. This seems risky.
And, if I can be blunt, what about those (admittedly incredibly rare) occasions when a company like Rockstar simply lies on its application for rating? That the ESRB missed Hot Coffee is completely understandable if you know about game technology, but the organization was still vilified in the mainstream press for “failing” to rate a portion of the game. What happens when the next Hot Coffee rolls around and the press gets wind of the fact that computers rather than people are making these decisions? The ESRB claims that humans will still make the ultimate judgment. That may be true. But are the humans simply rubber-stamping what the computers tell them? Going this route makes the whole thing seem dangerously easy to me.
The ESRB has never adequately defended itself against spurious claims that it’s inept, incompetent, incapable, or regularly deceived. It has never strengthened the honor system by which developers themselves choose what they consider to be offensive before submitting their reel. And unlike the MPAA, which rates movies in America (and is far more fucked up than the ESRB ever was), the ESRB has never had the trust of caregivers. Despite having what I consider to be a highly robust and clear set of standards, parents claim they don’t get it. Now, retailers have stepped in for these parents; it’s hard to buy an M-rated game without getting carded at most big stores and plenty of little ones (a nine year old would probably be able to buy A Serbian Film, but couldn’t buy Saint’s Row).
Algorithmizing the ratings process is going to reduce its credibility – credibility which wasn’t great among the general public to begin with. And with the battle for free speech protection as an art form far from over with, this route, while making it decidedly easier on the ESRB, isn’t gonna help anybody in the long term.
It’s delightful that their computer program is so prescient that they think it’ll be able to tell, Googleishly, what’s good and bad in games. That’s lovely. I’m sure you have wonderful programmers over at the ESRB. Maybe if you’d spent that money hiring more raters, a better PR firm, and a stronger director of operations, you’d be in a better place than you are now.
Hey, I like the ESRB and what it’s done. As someone in the industry I know that it has fulfilled its job more than adequately and the attacks against it are unfair. And I don’t have a solution to the aforementioned problems with correctly rating games for content. But I can tell you that this solution is the easy one, not the right one, and it stands to bite the ESRB right in the ass one day.
Which would get it rated “M” as a solution because I would think that the program would categorize ass biting as a mature activity inappropriate for children or young teens.
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