In the continuing war of politicians versus video games, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has taken a preemptive strike against its critics by announcing a new program to bolster retail compliance with their ratings system.
The new program, entitled “Commitment to Parents,” will expand on the board’s voluntary Retail Council group, formed last year by the ESRB. Video game retailers can join the group by agreeing to train their staff about the ratings system, display ESRB rating promotional material in the stores, and create a complaints process for customers concerned about ratings violations.
In addition to these requirements, the program will feature a “mystery shopper” system, where third party agents will quietly observe each retail operation’s compliance with the ratings system. The plan is to have two audits per year for each major retail chain, with mystery shoppers visiting up to 100 stores in each chain. If stores pass their audits, they will be allowed to display the “Commitment to Parents” identifier. Data collected from the audits will be shared with the stores in question but not with the general public.
ESRB president Patricia Vance denies that the changes in the program are due to the scandal over the Hot Coffee mod for Grand Theft Auto, despite the fact that the board has already implemented several such changes as a result of that controversy:
“I don’t think this is the result of Hot Coffee,” Vance said. “I think it’s the natural evolution of our retail program. The retailers wanted to have a more continuing dialogue with the ESRB.
The ESRB has been under attack by various members of the US government who have been pushing for federal oversight of the ratings system, which is currently a voluntary affair managed by the industry itself. Vance disagrees that additional government regulation is needed:
“The FTC mystery shopper program found that retailers are up to 65 percent compliant with the rating system,” she said. “Conceptually, I don’t have a problem with universal ratings, but why do we need it… there is nothing fundamentally broken about the rating system.”
Despite Vance’s protests, it seems that the ESRB has been indeed fighting a defensive battle after incidents like the Hot Coffee scandal have fired up politicians eager to score easy points with their constituencies. However, it is my opinion that the current wave of political criticism against video game content will have a short half-life. As seen on a recent Daily Show, some politicians are already admitting that they once played Pong. Within a few years, there will undoubtedly be senators and members of congress who grew up playing GTA.
Look for an exclusive interview with Patricia Vance coming soon to Ars!