The video game industry and its ratings policy have been under scrutiny lately by the United States Congress, who accuse the industry of allowing mature games to be sold to minors and not being honest enough about the ratings games receive. In the latest round, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has issued a written statement (PDF) to the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection. The document discusses the ESRB’s role in regulating the industry by providing ratings based on the game’s content.
A short history of the ESRB might be in order. Back in the early days of the video game revolution, there were literally no rules or restrictions on what kind of content game producers could ship. That led to titles such as 1982’s Custer’s Revenge for the Atari 2600, where the objective was to run your naked cowboy through a hail of arrows and traps to get to and violate a tied and bound native woman.
Due partly to the glut of poorly-made games with questionable content, Atari collapsed in 1983, taking the nascent console video game industry with it. To ensure that this disaster would not repeat itself, Nintendo initiated the policy (backed up by a lockout chip) of requiring that all third-party games go through an approval process, a stance that became standard for the entire industry. However, there were still concerns that some video games were getting too violent and/or offensive for children. These concerns turned into a political firefight with Congressional hearings in 1992 over games such as Sega’s campy Night Trap and Midway’s Mortal Kombat (the latter of which had some blood and violence removed by Nintendo but not by rival Sega, who wound up selling more copies of the game as a result). These hearings led to the foundation of ESRB in 1994.
Despite the formation of the ESRB, video games continued to come under fire. The Columbine massacre in 1999 brought outcries against games like DOOM that the shooters apparently favored. (Bowling, however, remained controversy-free). More recently, a storm of controversy over the Hot Coffee mod for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas brought more political pressure on the ESRB. Board president Patricia E. Vance fought back against these criticisms:
In 30 days, the ESRB had thoroughly investigated a complex and unprecedented situation affecting one of the most popular video games ever released, had assessed the implications and scope of the content and its availability, changed its policies regarding disclosure requirements for locked-out content, and imposed prudent corrective actions on the publisher that effectively removed a top-selling product from the marketplace.
I submit that there is no other industry self-regulatory system willing or capable of imposing such swift and sweeping sanctions on its own members, which in this particular case resulted in the removal of a top-selling product from the market and a major loss of sales.
The ESRB president went on to defend the actions of the Board, and said that in the event of any future cases of publishers not being completely honest about the content of their games, the ESRB would be empowered to impose fines up to US$1 million for the most serious infractions, and even suspend rating services.
One point that Vance brought up was that it is silly to expect the ESRB to personally play through all the games that they assign ratings to. Instead, the procedure is that publishers assemble a representative video of game play and send this to the Board for review. When I worked at EA, I had the opportunity to compile such a tape for the PlayStation version of NBA Live 2001, and while it was an enjoyable break from my usual tasks, it took the better part of a day to ensure that everything was well-represented—and this was for a relatively simple game of basketball that wound up easily receiving its “E” rating.
Surely after the Hot Coffee debacle game publishers are going to be extremely careful that their ESRB videos contain any questionable content, even hidden content. New ESRB rules, in fact, make this mandatory. Indeed, the Federal Trade Commission already believes (PDF) that the Entertainment Software Rating Board’s rating system generally works well, although the issue of undisclosed content is a concern.
So will this defense help video games against attacks by politicians looking to score a few easy points? The ESRB is hoping that when combined with new public education campaigns such as the joint effort with Penny Arcade, it will keep the hot coffee out of the industry’s lap.