The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank with a free market orientation, has issued a detailed position paper on media content ratings, including those of the ESRB.
Authored by Cord Blomquist and Eli Lehrer, Politically Determined Ratings and How to Avoid Them holds that the ESRB system, while complex, works better than most other rating schemes for media content. Ratings systems alone, however, cannot, over the long haul, influence the type of content produced.
From the report:
The best rating systems have three attributes: They attempt to describe, rather than prescribe, what entertainment media should contain; they are particularly suited to their particular media forms; and they were created with little or no direct input from government.
The [ESRB] system for evaluating computer games works better than most… Parents can tell, at a glance, exactly what they might find objectionable… Congress has held hearings on the video game industry and threatened to regulate content, but the system emerged almost entirely as a result of voluntary private action, and has worked well…
Blomquist and Lehrer, who offer a very readable history of the evolution of content rating systems, contrast the effect of the ESRB to radio, which is government-regulated:
In the radio market, the [FCC] imposes vague but sweeping content guidelines… The threat of FCC-imposed fines has done nothing to give parents greater control over their children’s radio listening habits — they have virtually no way to protect their children from adult material like explicitly sexual “shock jocks” and violent hip-hop lyrics. Heavy regulation and the absence of a private ratings system have made radio worse for parenting.
The authors look at the severe restrictions imposed on comic books in the 1950’s:
Comic books publishers long subjected themselves to an industry “code” that specified exactly what they could and could not publish. While officially a voluntary industry standard, the comics code came into existence following a series of hearings that made it clear that Congress would impose a code if the industry did not write one.
The resulting code became so incredibly specific that it once forbade comics from featuring werewolves, vampires, and zombies. The Comics Code collapsed during the 1990s…
Radio content regulation and the Comics Code fail because they provide very little information — none at all in the case of radio — and attempt to set particular limits over media that, by their very nature, should facilitate a wide range of different types of experiences for a wide range of different types of audiences. Neither takes the nature of the medium into account.
The authors also conclude that politics and media content ratings are a bad mix:
The best ratings systems have evolved in response to market forces. The First Amendment, correctly we believe, has long been interpreted to limit political control over entertainment media, anyway. Ratings systems that avoid government involvement will do a better job giving people the information they need.
GP: Blomquist and Lehrer have provided a well-reasoned look at rating systems. Our only concern is one of objectivity. Despite inquiries, we’ve been unable to determine whether any video game industry interests fund CEI. The organization has come under severe criticism in the past for its infamous anti-global warming campaign: Carbon Dioxide – They call it pollution; We call it life.
Full report available here (30-page pdf)