Friday, October 16, 2009

New Article in The Escapist

Be sure to check out this week's issue of The Escapist, which explores the various acronyms associated with gaming and the game industry, under the theme title "Alphabet Soup". Alongside some great articles on MMORPGs, IGDA and TGI (Triangle Game Initiative), is an article I wrote on the ESRB and the many challenges it will need to overcome if it is to remain relevant in a web 2.0, technologically converged, digitally distributed game environment. Here's an excerpt:
Through partnerships with the National PTA and a website overhaul, the ESRB has made real inroads toward helping parents make informed choices for their gamer children. Awareness levels are higher than ever, and current studies show that most parents find the ratings "useful." A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only eight percent of parents list videogames as their main source of "concern about inappropriate content," whereas 32 percent list television.

All signs seem to indicate the ESRB has hit finally its stride, but that's likely not the case. While it's commendable that the ESRB has rectified its past mistakes, here in the present the unaddressed challenges keep on stacking up. Current trends in game technology, design and distribution pose serious threats to the ESRB's newfound relevance. Many of these challenges have already been discussed elsewhere, but when you put them all together you start to appreciate their immensity.

The main challenges I explore in the article include the spread of online content and UGC, converging game formats (though a large section of this portion unfortunately didn't make it to the final version), and new distribution systems. I had also hoped to have enough space to talk about indie gaming, but it ended up as just a tiny footnote, and something that I will definitely need to elaborate on in a separate post or article in the future. Not that I needed more fuel for the fire in this particular piece - it attracted a sizable response on the article's "Comments" forum, as well as the forums of a couple of other sites where the story got picked up, most of which reveal just how controversial and touchy this particular subject still is within the game community.

Unfortunately, much of the feedback I received communicated a fundamental misunderstanding that I was trying to promote an expansion of the current ESRB rating system to online interactions...which couldn't be further from the truth. As I've argued before, the current system does not have the flexibility and responsiveness required to keep up with contemporary trends in gaming, and slapping an E or M onto an online game (or online features os a game) would be pretty pointless (and potentially misleading). But that doesn't mean the ESRB itself couldn't try to come up with some sort of new approach to help parents make informed decisions about the different types of online/chat moderation systems available, the varying levels of freedom afforded by different UGC games, or at the very least enable parents, children and designers to exchange information in a more direct and adaptive way. They do, after all, have the full cooperation of the mainstream game industry, and unique access to mechanisms and programming that are otherwise (supposed to be) off-limits to would-be raters. But anyway, as the title of my article ("Obsolescence Pending") suggests, with all the time and energy that has been spent defending the current framework, it's doubtful that a massive restructuring is likely to occur anytime soon....leaving the door wide open for an alternative service or system to come in and provide something a little more comprehensive and hopefully much more responsive to technological advances, evolution of the player community, etc. Especially as a larger and larger portion of games and game content are not rated by the ESRB, and the ratings are restricted to a shrinking proportion of the overall games market (although as one commentator, SaintPeter, rightly pointed out, as long as there are single-player games there will be a place for the ESRB ratings, which is very true and highlights the technological determinism of my overall argument).

By far one of the most interesting and useful outcomes of the article for me and my own thinking about these issues was the feedback I received that provided preliminary sketches and suggestions about how this alternative system might work. While the article attracted a LOT of disagreement and challenge from the forum communities, I also received some great feedback on additional issues that would need to be included to make my assessment of the ESRB more exhaustive, as well as a number of ideas for alternative systems. For example:
slopeslider:
I have a few Ideas.
For online interactions there could be a new rating category.
Moderated/unmoderated user-generated content.
Moderated/unmoderated player chat
For multiplayer online games maybe a special moderated chat line for kiddies. It would be moderated, but the rules would be soo strict that it wouldn't be a problem moderating 2% of the overall game chat. I know if they had this most people A. dont want to talk to little kids and B. don't like super strict speech guidlines. That means they wouldn't have to moderate 1 million people chatting online at once, more like 10,000.

I agree - even a simple system of moderated/unmoderated would be a great place to start. I know that individual games often include a self-description, but a standardized categorization system would be much more immediately useful to parents. This theme was taken up and elaborated upon by BehattedWanderer:
BehattedWanderer:
That actually doesn't sound like a bad Idea. If they were to display a prominent warning about 'User made un/moderated content', specifically stating that 'users of varying ages can createj online content, which may result in inappropriate content being generated and played before it attracts moderator attention', then it would go a long way towards helping to assess the interactions that they cannot (but probably can hazard a guess) predict.

What they would need to do is put out a psa, or something, a short commercial, to be aired on the big channels--wouldn't have to be long, just a minute or so, alerting parents to the new type of content, and to look at the rating on the box, and that they should use their judgement when purchasing--Games rated T and M might feature more mature subject matter in the online play from both adolescents and adults, which would expose their children to such.

To which I responded:
So clever. What would you think if the system also enabled users to actively submit their content for some sort of peer-reviewed or moderator rating? For instance, if you think your game level should be rated E, you could flag it so that it gets some special (or more immediate) attention - perhaps through some kind of volunteer (or nominated, if the community is large enough) parent-gamer group. Parents could then set up child accounts that can only access content confirmed as appropriate. Or something along those lines.

To which BehattedWanderer replied:
I agree with you up to the point of peer review--that's all well and good, and could work pretty well, as long as there is unbiased review as well--it randomly picks someone from the review board (whom you don't know), and gives you a rating and a review from there, if not a quick chop from the cutting axe for trying to post an overly sexually-themed level in the 'E' category. Each review board is accompanied by one moderator, just to ensure fairness. After two or three of these random and anonymous reviews by the peer review or moderator groups, the rating is affirmed, and put into it's appropriate category.

The part I have a bit of issue with, however, is the latter part--specifically the child accounts. Parental settings are fine and dandy, and work on occasion. But the issue with that is that children are devilish when the want to be, and most can figure out how to either get around the parental controls, or flat out just change the parental control settings so that they have their own access. What's more, for every child account that is created and ahered to, dozens more won't even be created, leaving unfiltered settings for the child to browse. Most parents (I'm talking about those not that familiar with online play, mostly the older parents) wouldn't know to filter the content online, not expecting there to be such content so readily available within the game. It's for that reason I propose the ads--just to draw attention that their children might be accessing this kind of content without their knowledge. It's that age old idiom of "knowing is half the battle"--most aren't even aware there's an issue of unrated and unfiltered content.

Very insightful points and nuanced understanding of the parent-child-technology relationships involved. Another really great recommendation that draws on the idea of crowd-sourcing was provided by Nutcase, who describes:
Nutcase:
In this day and age, you could derive a quite accurate community rating by picking a number of people at random who have bought the game, and asking them to fill a ratings questionnaire. This job would naturally fall to game vendors because they are the only ones who know who has bought what. To increase confidence in the ratings, stores like Amazon could offer this only to people who have bought the game two weeks ago or more. Steam could go further and actually observe that the person has played the game for X amount of time.

Well, this kind of rating might have trouble catching spikes of content that come late in the game (70 hours into a JRPG...) or by random (an unmarked location in a sandbox game you might find or not...) but it would produce good ratings for the great majority of games. One can think of additional mechanisms specifically to deal with these cases.

This system would follow the actual audience attitudes closely without getting "stuck" in the morality of any given group. Also, the system would not need to flatten the results in one rating (though it could also do that for at-a-glance reading). Most of the actual data could remain browsable online with various filters, with only identity-compromising information stripped. The implications of half the audience rating something AO and half rating it T are quite different from everyone rating it M, though dumb averaging would make these two cases look the same. It's also to be expected that ratings vary depending on geographical area; for most people the ratings would be more accurate if they could use ones from their own area instead of all ratings.

Very true - getting the vendors/distributors involved would be key, and since it involves building consumer involvement and potential loyalty, and providing a service to both players and developers, it may not be all that difficult to get them on board. There may be more, I haven't had the time to go through the last batch of comments, but I think there's enough even here to begin envisioning an alternative framework. As Sal Humphreys posted on my Facebook wall:
I also think in the world of user-generated content - which is too vast to monitor - it might be that user-generated ratings have a role to play - if you develop a culture of rating, and have enough people rating, then you have a system that generates the information necessary to make informed choices.

Indeed!

Interestingly, this is all in harmony with a model currently being developed/promoted by independent game designer Daniel Kinney with his TIGRS rating system. I'm sure there are other models out there as well, just waiting to be taken up by the player community and industry. For instance, a number of non-indie developers are also working on incorporating user-based moderation systems and game reviews into online communities/hubs for certain games...an expanded version of these systems that includes more of a focus on tagging content as kid-friendly (or not), in a more systematic way, is another step in the right direction. Even something as simple as the self-rating system that Metaplace is using, which in fact does draw on ESRB-style ratings categories, seems viable as a starting point (no way to rate people/chat, however, as my students were unlucky enough to experience firsthand during a group discussion a few weeks ago). Most of these solutions do leave room for mistakes, of course, but could nonetheless provide an initial bedrock of advice and support for parents to make better informed decisions. What I'm particularly interested in are models that draw on kids and parents as well to provide content ratings and evaluation of ratings...after all, they're the ones actually using the ratings (and not just as a political tool either). This whole experience has given me a lot to think about, sprouting some wiggly little project ideas in the back of my mind.

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