Wednesday, February 28, 2007

ESRB Ratings System Revamp

Having recently watched the wonderful documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated (a behind-the-scenes look at the American movie ratings system, the MPAA), I can't help but be skeptical of the ESRB's (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) recent announcement that they are revamping their own ratings process to better address, well, content. The big news here is that they've decided to hire full-time raters, which will allow them to now play the games themselves instead of relying on game companies to self-report potentially objectionable content. Both GamePolitics.com and Joystiq have been following this development closely, and you can read some of their articles here and here.

Obviously, it's high time that this switch was made. It's hard to believe that the Board was able to claim objective and accurate ratings based solely on a few clips and game companies' varied (and, yes, subjective) understandings of what the Board would qualify as violent, sexual, etc. content. It made me think about the MPAA, however, and the types of people that make up THEIR ratings team - in This Film is Not Yet Rated, they discovered that the vast majority were middle-aged parents of adult children (and not parents of children between the ages of 5 and 17, as the MPAA suggests), and typically quite middle/upper-middle class (they didn't explore this in too much detail, but the size of their houses and the small salary attached to the position of 'rater' strongly suggests supplementary income). They sit around watching movies all day, taking notes, discussing content, and then vote on a rating.

I just don't think that this same approach is going to work with video games, namely because of the demographics and nature of gameplay. While the average age of a digital game player is 29, the average age of console players and players of games that would require the more-thorough playthrough in the first place (i.e. NOT casual games or online Solitaire, etc.), is surely much lower. And the pool of qualified people - assuming they're looking for raters who are already know how to play videogames (and hopefully are good enough to get through long games and learn the various different control configurations) and not planning on sending new raters to some sort of video game boot camp (which I doubt would really work that well) - is much smaller (and male dominated, which is another issue altogether). I guess what I'm trying to say is that I just don't think it's likely that the same type of people that currently decide on film ratings would be willing or able to play 20+ hours of a game in order to rate it. This could mean a much different set of criteria and demographics for the ESRB raters, and I really wonder if this will change the general tone of the ESRB or its resultant ratings in the future.

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