Adam Thierer Offers Reaction to Former Rater’s Criticisms of ESRB

Recently, former ESRB game rater Jerry Bonner penned a critique of the video game industry’s content rating system for Electronic Gaming Monthly.

Adam Thierer (Left), a senior fellow with market-oriented D.C. think tank the Progress & Freedom Foundation, finds himself in disagreement with a number of Bonner’s suggestions and has issued a point-by-point response.

For example, in regard to Bonner’s suggestion to tweak the current rating system by discarding the useless AO (adults only) rating, making M (mature) the new 18+ high end of the scale and adding a T-16 (teen, 16+), Thierer writes:

Why screw with the ratings system? Indeed, the change Mr. Bonner suggests will invite far more pressure by critics and lawmakers for oversight or direct regulation of games since they will make the old “ratings creep” argument…

Moreover… the fact that AO-rated games are currently kept off the major consoles and off the shelves at some major retailers… is probably the most important thing holding back a full-on legislative assault on video games. 

While, like some game industry critics (most notably Sen. Sam Brownback), Bonner advocates playing games all the way through prior to assigning a rating, Thierer disagrees:

Let’s get serious. Games are not linear media like TV shows or movies. Gameplay is highly unique and multi-dimensional, and often there is no clear “end” to the game. Raters would have to spend days – perhaps weeks – trying to “finish” some titles.

While Bonner argues that the solution is to hire more raters, Thierer views this as unworkable:

Mr. Bonner is underestimating the challenge at hand here. The ESRB would have to hire a small army of new, full-time raters… Who’s going to pay for all that manpower? Answer: Gaming companies. And they aren’t going to be very happy about it… More importantly, it would likely slow down a system that is fairly responsive right now.

Regarding Bonner’s call for additional transparency in the rating process, Thierer writes:

There are actually some very good reasons for the ESRB… to not be perfectly open as Mr. Bonner suggests… if those assigning video game ratings weren’t anonymous, [raters] might be harassed by both game developers (who want to make them more lax) and game critics (who want to make them more stringent)… if the ESRB was forced to make their ratings process completely open… it would result in a circus-like atmosphere and little content would get rated in a timely manner…

You’d have Jack Thompson screaming bloody murder (literally!) from one side of the aisle while the guys from Take-Two would be going nuts on the opposite side…

Thierer also takes Bonner to task over his call for competitive rating systems:

I’m about as rabid of a capitalist as you will find… But capitalism also depends on standards… If you hope to build acceptance and awareness about a voluntary rating system, you need a certain amount of stability and scale. Everything needs to be rated according to a widely understood benchmark and then branded accordingly…  

And I’m happy to report to Mr. Bonner that there is a lot of [non-industry] competition out there already in this regard [from media outlets and watchdog groups]… But if Mr. Bonner seriously believes that an entirely different, competing rating system is going to develop from within the industry as an official alternative to the ESRB, I think he’s dreaming. Developers would never tolerate it.

Thierer wraps up with: 

What critics consistently forget – or perhaps intentionally ignore – is that media rating and content-labeling efforts are not an exact science; they are fundamentally subjective exercises… In a sense, therefore, all rating systems will be inherently “flawed”…

In many ways, although [ESRB] is the newest of all industry content rating and labeling schemes, the video game industry’s system is in many ways the most sophisticated, descriptive, and effective ratings system ever devised by any major media sector in America…

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