The ESRB’s New Online Ratings System: Still Effective?

The ESRB’s New Online Ratings System: Still Effective?

The ESRB currently slaps its mark on downloadable console and PC games as well as console and PC games available at retail. That’s not set to change, but the manner in which the ESRB evaluates potentially offensive content in downloadable games is undergoing a shift.

With the new process, digital game publishers are asked to fill out a multiple choice form for their title. The questions pertain to game content that involves acts of violence, suggestions of sex, etc. It also asks questions based on the game’s contextual factors, like visual style and incentives (for instance, is it absolutely necessary to bust open your rival’s head like a melon to progress in-game?).

The publisher is then asked to send the ESRB a DVD that reflects the game’s disclosed content. When new titles are made public, they’re tested by the ESRB itself. If the ESRB feels a change should be made to the game’s initial rating, it’ll happen quickly.

This new means of evaluating online games sounds a bit like the honor system, which is probably why the ESRB promises it’ll deal out swift vengeance to publishers who hide objectionable content in order to secure a lower rating. However, as stated by ESRB president Patricia Vance, the new ratings process will also let the ESRB evaluate the neverending flood of downloadable games quickly and affordably. “This new rating process considers the very same elements weighed by our raters,” Vance said. “The biggest difference is in our ability to scale this system as necessary while keeping our services affordable and accessible.”

Is this a good direction for the ESRB to head in? Can parents be assured that the games their kids play are still being thoroughly checked and evaluated for offensive content?

There isn’t much reason to worry. Publishers have little reason to lie about their downloadable game ratings, which brings up another interesting point: How do game ratings impact downloadable games versus retail offerings? Past drama over ESRB ratings (think Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the cringe-inducing “Hot Coffee” minigame) occurred because a most retailers refuse to carry games marked “AO” or “Adults Only.” With downloadable games, such restrictions are not applicable. The owner of the credit card (or points card) is the only barrier between a game system’s hard drive and a mature game.

Does this mean the downloadable console marketplace will eventually see a (gasp!) AO-rated game? The potential media outburst puts a damper on the prospect, but it’s a fun one to consider.

In the end, though, the ESRB’s “honor system” and the potential for more mature content to appear as downloads is a good reminder for parents that there’s no replacement for getting involved in gaming alongside your kids and scoping out the landscape for yourself. It shouldn’t exclusively be Wal-Mart’s job to say to a minor, “No, you can’t have this game.”

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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