Thursday, October 02, 2008

Gamasutra on How to Regulate UGC

I highly recommend that everyone check out this absolutely fascinating piece included in today's edition of Gamasutra, all about emerging regulatory questions and challenges raised by the inclusion of increasingly sophisticated UGC (user-generated content) tools within digital games. Using LittleBigPlanet as a case study (or rather a jumping off point), the article asks the looming and important question: "How can the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) evaluate a console title that hinges primarily on content created and distributed by users?"

The ESRB doesn't have a very good track record when it comes to the unique challenges presented by multiplayer, online gaming. In the face of MMOGs and now the spread of online capable console titles, the games industry's self-regulatory body has adopted a "no contest" response -- declining to evaluate titles beyond providing the vague warning that "Game experience may change during online play" and the now standard disclaimer "Online Interactions Not Rated By the ESRB." According to the Gamasutra article, the ESRB is taking a similar position on UGC. As ESRB spokesperson Eliot Mizrachi describes, "player-created content [is] not accounted for in the rating and is outside the jurisdiction of the ESRB." Outside the jurisdiction? Really? That sounds wrong, doesn't it?

As the article goes on to explain, however:
But recognizing that entire games rooted in UGC go a bit beyond "online interaction," Mizrachi says that the ESRB can't -- and shouldn't bear the moderation burden alone.

"Game publishers have a key part to play, and many are quite active in addressing consumer complaints and doing what they can to moderate and regulate online gameplay," he says.

"The gaming community also plays a vital role, and it, too, actively self-regulates inappropriate behavior of other players by reporting such cases to publishers. It's a collective effort."

Still, Mizrachi notes the critical role that continuing consumer education campaigns can play, and says the ESRB is strengthening its focus on such efforts, according to the official spokesperson.

The first groups that the ESRB is hitting up with its "consumer education campaigns" strategy is, of course, families and children...PTA groups, teachers, media literacy programs. Now, although I am a big supporter of media literacy, I also think that the ESRB can do a lot better than simply offloading these kinds of massive responsibilities onto parents, children and the public school system (not to mention game developers!)...yet again. The whole concept of self-regulation sort of hinges on the premise that the industry is going to take on the burden of self regulating...not passing the buck onto individual families and publicly (ahem, government) funded institutions, attempting to teach them how to do what the ESRB itself (with all its resources and funding) has refused to do because of the level difficulty and complexity involved in rating "player-created content." If that's the case, I can't think of a better or clearer argument in support of government regulation or at the very least co-regulation. For some time now, the ESRB has been faced with serious and increasing challenges in fulfilling its mandate -- from earlier rumors that the organization wasn't playing games through to the end before rating them, to the massive inconsistencies and biases in how it doles out M ratings, to its more recent impotence towards online gaming. At this point it has pretty much admitted that it doesn't have the infrastructure or resources to keep up with industry trends, developer needs or player interests.

It's clear that the ESRB will need to undergo a serious overhaul if it is to remain relevant in this new age of collaborative gaming - a review of its mandate, an influx of better informed and much more adaptable decision makers, and much much greater transparency. And while I completely agree that the organization needs to be more responsive to developer and player interests, the position described above is a far cry from adopting an inclusive approach to regulation...Instead of sharing resources and information, all the ESRB seems to be doing is delegating the task of monitoring content to the market. Above all, the ESRB needs to build a closer (institutionalized) relationship with the regulatory bodies whose jurisdiction does include player-generated content...i.e. government regulators. If governments and civil servants can go after people who infringe on corporate copyright and post unlawful content (online, inside game environments, etc.), the argument could certainly be made that player-generated content falls within its scope as well. Not that I think real world laws should simply be transposed onto UGC and collaborative games, as that would almost certainly ruin the games for everyone involved. But rather that it's definitely time for the FCC to start monitoring the ESRB's role and function as a "self"-regulator, maybe make sure that someone is actually taking on the burden that is otherwise so aggressively guarded and consistently wrestled away from government intervention.

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