Best Buy Ratings Deal is Bad News for ESRB

On Thursday GamePolitics reported on a deal between retailer Best Buy and watchdog group Common Sense Media that places CSM’s video game ratings alongside those of the ESRB on the BestBuy.com website.

While GamePolitics commented at the time that the move didn’t seem to bode well for the ESRB, the organization itself put on a brave face. Spokesman Eliot Mizrachi told GameDaily BIZ:

ESRB ratings are just one tool among many that consumers can and should use to help them make informed video game purchase decisions. Best Buy continues to be a strong supporter of ESRB ratings, and this move expands upon the resources they’ve been offering their customers…

But since the announcement a pair of knowledgable sources have painted a less optimistic picture of the Best Buy – Common Sense Media alliance. One industry insider told GamePolitics:

It really undermines the ESRB.

Another source, well-versed in the political aspects of video game content, saw the move as indicative of fading retailer confidence in the ESRB:

Really, it all goes back to Hot Coffee.

This individual claimed that retailers lost confidence in the industry’s rating process during the 2005 scandal. The source also alleged that pressure from major retailers prompted the ESRB’s public revelation that the Hot Coffee animations were included on the San Andreas retail disc by GTA developer Rockstar.

The source further added that ESRB president Patricia Vance’s testimony before a contentious June, 2006 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection only served to increase retailers’ concerns.

Finally, the source contended that, unlike legal restrictions aimed at game content, regulating the rating process would not be likely to trigger a First Amendment battle, thus making the ESRB a tempting target for politicians:

ESRB can’t solely rely on the First Amendment defense and that leaves them open for legislative interference.

Indeed, among active legislation, Sen. Sam Brownback’s Truth in Video Game Ratings Act and Rep. Fred Upton’s Video Game Decency Act both address aspects of the ESRB process.

Nor has Common Sense Media been especially supportive of the ESRB over the years. Said spokesman Peter Katz in a 2005 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle:

What we hear from parents a lot is, ‘I finally took a look at Grand Theft Auto, and boy was I surprised.” What that says to me, and it’s scary, is that parents just don’t know what’s in the game.

GP: Let’s face it – if Best Buy was confident in the industry’s own ratings board, would it take the time and trouble to break ranks in such a fashion? No matter how you spin it, the new partnership between Best Buy and CSM is not good news for the ESRB. 

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