The Needles

The Needles
Inappropriate Content: A Brief History of Videogame Ratings and the ESRB

Andy Chalk | 20 Jul 2007 17:00
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Criticism such as this, coupled with the voluntary, non-legislative nature of the ESRB, has led to sporadic calls for government regulation of the videogame industry over the years. In 2005, Senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, Tim Johnson and Evan Bayh introduced a bill known as the Family Entertainment Protection Act, which would impose hefty fines on individuals or businesses found selling M- or AO-rated games to minors, as well as launch an investigation into the ESRB to determine whether it has been properly rating games. More recently have been the Truth in Video Game Rating Act, introduced by Senator Sam Brownback, which would require the ESRB to have access to the entire content of rating-pending games as well as "hands-on time" with them, and the Video Game Decency Act from Congressman Fred Upton, which would "prohibit deceptive acts and practices in the content rating and labeling of video games."

The ESRB has lately shown signs of moving more aggressively to counter these criticisms. In a high-profile decision, it recently rated Take-Two's planned Manhunt 2, developed by perennial industry bad-boy Rockstar, as Adults Only. It also requested the removal of Dark Sector promotional trailers from the Gaming Today and FileFront sites due to a lack of appropriate age-gating. (Both services claimed age-gates were in place, but nonetheless complied with the request.) Most recently, on July 18 the agency took 3D Realms to task for its failure to conform to the ESRB's Advertising Review Council guidelines. ESRB President Patricia Vance has implied these moves are routine, saying they are "merely a reflection of ESRB fulfilling its obligations to the industry to enforce the guidelines it has adopted." Many, however, feel the Board's more proactive behavior is a response to increasing pressure for legislative regulation in the face of ESRB ineffectiveness.

Whether that pressure continues to grow, regardless of the perceived value of the ESRB, is an open question. In its favor is the simple fact that the ESRB is a proven system, well-established and widely recognized. The Board sponsors numerous initiatives and educational programs in an effort to keep parents abreast of what their children are playing, and recent surveys indicate a high and growing level of awareness among parents of the rating system. Perhaps most important in the short term, critics of the current system have yet to put forward alternatives beyond heavy penalties for the sale of inappropriate games to minors, a measure that has already been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Courts of individual states, including Michigan, Illinois and Louisiana. Out of necessity, the ESRB may become a more vocal and interventionist agency, but much the same as it was during its inception, it's a whole lot better than the alternative.

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