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blog.gkaindl.com » Video-Games and the ESRB

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Video-Games and the ESRB

What a turbulent week for Take Two Interactive and its controversial Manhunt 2 project. After being banned in the UK, a preliminary version of the game received an “Adults-Only” rating in the US, which, as it turns out, means that neither Sony nor Nintendo will allow it to appear on their consoles. As it stands, the game is suspended, and while people speculate that Take Two will have the game modified and stress a new rating, its future is unclear at the moment.

Pushing the controversial nature of Rockstar’s “Manhunt” franchise to the side for a moment, the current events move the whole rating process (and the difficulty of rating games, as opposed to movies or books) into the spotlight for once. As it seems, this process itself could be considered to be quite controversial.

Computer games in the US are generally rated by the ESRB. On their own website, they display the following self-description:

The ESRB is a non-profit, self-regulatory body that independently assigns ratings, enforces advertising guidelines, and helps ensure responsible online privacy practices for the interactive entertainment software industry.

Official ESRB website

Within this description, there are two expressions that specifically jump to my eye: self-regulatory and independent. While the former implies that the ESRB operates within its own code of principles without being subject to external guidelines such as scientific reports, opinion polls and the like, the latter means they are not associated with either corporate or government institutions.

As such, the ESRB is entirely responsible for its decisions regarding the rating process. While this sounds good on paper, alluding to the idea of a rating process that is not influenced by politics or corporate decisions, it also means that the ESRB constantly has to justify its authority. After all, a government organization justifies its actions by being the government, i.e. by the social and political construct behind it. Similarly, a corporation justifies itself via its revenue and financial success.

As an independent organization, however, the ESRB is perceived as being as functioning and valuable as its ratings are. Its independence is only virtual. For example, if a game is already stigmatized by activists such as Jack Thompson, and a public opinion has already formed before the game is released or has even been submitted to the ESRB, its choices are severely limited: If the game is rated too lightly, the broad public may quickly see the ESRB as something that is not working too well. After all, if the average soccer mom has heard about a gruesome game from trusted sources, but the ESRB does not reflect the rumors and exaggerations in its rating, the ESRB is blamed for not working properly.

Consequently, while none of us has played “Manhunt 2″ yet, there are quite some voices that believe that this game has been unfairly singled out, considering Rockstar’s history of controversial games such as GTA, Bully or the first Manhunt that have been widely discussed in the public. With such an evil history, isn’t is just necessary to finally give them an “Adults Only” rating for once? After all, people want to see that the ESRB “works”, so what’s better than just using an already pre-stigmatized game from a stigmatized developer to give a lasting example?

While the rating process may already be distorted by the necessity of the ESRB to justify itself, let’s look further into their website to learn more about it.

Who decides which rating a game should get?
Each ESRB rating is based on the consensus of at least three specially trained raters who view content independently of one another. ESRB raters work on a part-time basis and are recruited from one of the most culturally diverse populations - the New York metropolitan area. They must be adults, and typically have experience with children through their profession, education or by being parents or caregivers themselves. They are not required to have advanced skills as computer and video game players since their job is to review content and determine its age-appropriateness, not to assess how challenging or entertaining a particular game is to play. To ensure their objectivity ESRB raters are kept anonymous, and they are not permitted to have any ties to or connections with any individuals or entities in the computer/video game industry.

Official ESRB website

It appears as if the ESRB just recruits raters off the street, with no specific background in video games or computers (and the culture surrounding it in general), the only qualification being that they have “experience with children” (which, as they say, could mean that they are just parents themselves). Granted, there is talking about “special training”, but we are not given any idea of what this might be. It could be as simple as explaining how to start the game console.

What are the criteria for rating video games?
ESRB raters are trained to consider a wide range of pertinent content and other elements in assigning a rating. Pertinent content is any content that accurately reflects both:

  • the most extreme content of the final product - in terms of relevant rating criteria such as violence, language, sexuality, gambling, and alcohol, tobacco and drug reference or use; and
  • the final product as a whole - demonstrating the game’s context (such as setting, storyline and objectives) and relative frequency of extreme content.

Due to the unique interactive characteristics of games, the ESRB rating system goes beyond other entertainment systems by also taking into account elements such as the reward system and the degree of player control.

Official ESRB website

While we see that there are some predefined criteria that raters have to look for, there’s also the blurry notion of “the final product as a whole”, which could, again, mean just about anything.

Consequently, we can see that not only the ESRB as a whole, but the individual raters themselves can be heavily influenced by the media and their portrayal of video games in general, or a particular game specifically. Especially considering that the raters are non-professionals recruited off the street, it is very well possible that a horrified parent may base their decision on “I do not want to let my kid play this game” rather than “I don’t think any kid should be playing this game”.

It’s especially difficult considering that a background in video-games is not required for raters. While such a system may work well for movies and books, where, due to their ubiquity, it’s impossible not to have at least some understanding of how they work, there are plenty of people who have never actually played a video-game. For example, we understand which dramaturgical twists in a movie could horribly scare a kid. But do we also know what particularly scares children in a video game? To the raters, the games could be something entirely new. It’s not necessarily important to be immersed into psychological research on media influence to rate a horror movie because we’ve all seen horror movies before. We have a concept of horror movies. But not that many people have a similar concept of horror video-games. It’s like judging a sub-culture that we do not only not understand, but haven’t even been in contact with.

It will be even more difficult to sustain the rating model as games are becoming more important inside the media culture. After all, they are no niche market anymore, and are thusly subject to external political influence as well. For example, according to recent polls, a lot of people doubt the theory of evolution. Does this mean that upcoming games like Spore that heavily promote and illustrate this theory are likely to receive a higher rating because they subjectively promote ideas that a lot of US citizens doubt? After all, the raters are just ordinary people with their own belief model.

Or what about upcoming genres like Interactive Fiction, where the players are given much more freedom about their actions. If the game offers the possibility to kill a cop, but does in no way encourage it, should this cause a higher rating or not? To follow up on this idea, what rating should a “life simulator” receive, where the player is absolutely free to do what they want? For example, raise a family or become a serial killer? While a movie or a book are fixed in content, a game is not. Consequently, wouldn’t this imply that rating a game is a more complex process than rating, say, the latest horror flick. After all, it’s not about what you see, but what you could do?

While Manhunt 2 may very well be a violent game that deserves an “Adults Only” rating, the drama surrounding it steers our eyes at the rating process itself. Sure, we have to draw a line somewhere, but are organizations like the ESRB able to do that, in an impartial and fair manner? And is their rating process in itself well-conceptualized?

It’s hard to say, but I tend to believe that it’s not, for the reasons given above. Considering the apparent empowerment of the ESRB by both Nintendo and Sony not publishing games that receive an “Adults Only” rating, I’m not so sure if this power is justified by their process.

2 Comments

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    Paul Levinson
    wrote on Jun 25, 2007 at 3:56

    I would just comment here that Jack Thompson’s campaign against video games is supported by no reliable scientific evidence, and that point should be made to all governments and agencies that may evaluate the “danger” of videogames..
    I Went Face-to-Screen with Jack Thompson


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    georg
    wrote on Jun 25, 2007 at 11:29

    Yes, and there’s a very good point you are raising in the video you’ve linked to, namely Jack Thompson seeing causal link between violent video games and real-world violence when there’s only a correlation: What he’s championing is a simplified stimulus-response system that is not applicable to how we perceive and process media. However, it’s a tempting interpretation for someone who is not immersed into this field of research and thusly constitutes a good way to make a point in a manipulative way.

    Incidentally, that’s another point why I don’t think using people “off the street” to rate games is a valid process, as the less we’re familiar with a certain topic, the more likely we are to see oversimplified causal links where there actually are none, be it “violent games make kids violent” or “using the internet isolates people”.

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Hi, how are you? My name is Georg Kaindl, and I'm a twenty-something from Vienna, Austria. During the day, I'm a CS student at the Vienna University of Technology, but at night, I turn into an independent software developer for the Macintosh platform, social nerd, lazy entrepreneur and intuitive researcher.

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