Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mobile Apps Get Rated


A pretty key and interesting development has been unfolding over at the ESRB this fall, as reported by Wendy Goldman Getzler for Kidscreen magazine last month. It would seem that despite their early hesitation to delve into mobile games, the videogames ratings board is now extending its system to mobile games as well, through a new partnership with CTIA-The Wireless Association® (an international nonprofit industry organization that represents the wireless communications industry). As  Goldman Getzler describes:
"[The] official CTIA Mobile Application Rating System with ESRB is designed to provide parents with more context on the appropriateness of apps for children.  The system will utilize the well-known age rating icons that ESRB introduced to computer and video games back in 1994. Apps will fall into six categories running from EC for Early Childhood to AO for Adults Only (18 and older)."

While a number of stores have already agreed to voluntarily support the new ratings system (including those run by Microsoft, AT&T and T-mobile), the two biggest players in the app landscape - Apple and Google - are opting to stick with their own systems instead. Leading to Jeff Blagdon's assessment that the ESRB's mew mobile app rating scheme is "toothless" and raises serious questions about "what impact, if any, it will have."

In addition to buy-in woes, the system itself seems a bit lightweight. As Blagdon, writing for The Verge, explains, the ratings themselves will be generated through a "cursory multiple-choice questionnaire about sexual content, language, and the sharing of user-generated content and location information. Once completed, the app is then rated "within seconds" – unlike the much more detailed rating process used for console games." The rating is then supposed to last for the "life of the app," with a small caveat that if the app is later updated in ways that might affect its rating, it *should* then be resubmitted. However, as Goldman Getzler points out, the ESRB has also stated that "it will routinely test the most popular apps and adjust inappropriate ratings when necessary" - which means that it's not intended to be a totally "laissez faire" self-directed system.

While I share in some of Blagdon's reservations, I'm also somewhat impressed that the ESRB is stepping up to the plate here. As I've written elsewhere (e.g. "Obsolescence Pending"), failure to keep up with new platforms and developments has been hugely diminishing the impact and efficacy of the ratings system over the past few years...which, although problematic and flawed (esp. around issues of censorship, access to culture, etc.), remains the only real regulatory framework for games that we have. So - good for the ESRB for making this important move. But also - good for Apple and Google for deciding to take on the enormously challenging task of trying to curate and manage such an enormous and ever-changing corpus of content. I hope something useful and innovative comes out of all this.

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