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

March 18, 2008 -
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...

Comments

umn............. didn't I mention these EXACT same points in the original story? funny how great minds think alike

StinkingKevin - They ARE overstepping their boundaries. How are they not? If their main purpose is purely to inform the consumer what the rating of a product is and one of the ratings they assign is an effective ban I don't see how anyone could consider that not overstepping their boundaries. They are screwing the developer and the consumer by not adhering strictly to their intended purpose. When they find out that their system is being used for something other than what it is intended for they simply keep on trucking. They need to fix the system because it is being manipulated and used in ways that were not intended. It is harmful the the wellness of the developer's creative freedom and in turn harmful to the consumer because they desire to play content as it was originally intended, not something that was changed just because the ESRB gives it a particular rating.

The argument is not backwards. It is their system that is being manipulated and used in ways in which was not intended. Even the ESRB says their intention is to be sure that the consumer is well informed about the product they are purchasing. The effort to inform is being killed by those who wish to prohibit AO titles. What use is the AO title when the consumer doesn't even get a chance to read what it entails on any given product. It has no use. Its intended use is not implemented in the slightest because its intended use is being manipulated. So change the system so it can no longer be manipulated. It is definitely a DESIGN ISSUE.

If you make a game and gamers don't play it the way you wanted them too then who is to blame? The gamer certainly isn't, it is your fault for making a faulty design. So what can you do? Well you can continue to allow people to use it as it was not intended or you can fix it. I say the ESRB should fix this issue because the Big3 and retailers are screwing with the system and that is not good for the consumer or the designer.

@ TJLK

The US has a law where unless a movie is rated it CAN NOT be released. Now Porn is rated NC-17 (replacing the old X and XXX ratings)
Major retailers WILL NOT STOCK them, so if they don't stock them where would one buy a porn? Simple adult store and internet. DUELLY NOTE: Porno is the LARGEST industry in the US.

Now gamers have the same rate system CAN NOT, be released with out a rating. Now major retailers WILL NOT STOCK AO games. So how would one come about procurring an AO game. I would assume if it's heavily based on sex maybe a Adult Store, and definatly the internet.

Now round about way of saying, this and I'll caps lock it for a quick read. THE ESRB DOES NOT CHOOSE WHAT GOES INTO STORES, THE STORES PICK AND CHOOSE. THE ESRB HAS ONLY ONE FUNCTION, TO RATE. WITHOUT A RATING IT CAN NOT BE RELEASED IN THE US.

Good points around the board, though I think there is some degree of merit to Bonner's suggestions - many of which have been leveled before by the Nielson Report, National Institute on Media and the Family, etc.

I do agree that raters should play a portion of the games. A few hours of gameplay can get you through a good amount of most games if you are 'cheating' by using dev copies to eliminate difficulty. Given that these reviewers need not be paid an astronomical amount and the huge profits of the industry, I think the cost of doing business here is manageable. The real problem is probably deadlines and completion of games, which is something that work work its way out of the system if developers unilaterally accounted for this downtime.

Regarding the AO rating, I think the best thing is to keep questioning its usefulness and continuing to be indignant about it. Like many things in the (US) media, the rating system is highly subjective and broken - I honestly do not see why "Adults Only" should be a kiss of death if that's the way we describe Mature games - especially if this games-as-porn legislation gets passed. In time, one of three things should happen:

1. The industry 'grows up', sees the larger number of aging gamers, and starts releasing "AO" type games to consoles.
2. The mass culture 'grows up' with the wave of gamers and the 'games are just for kids' argument evaporates.
3. Digital Distribution begins to eliminate retail's interference, and already-developed 'parental controls' on consoles prevent youngun's from playing the games.

Personally, I am hoping for a combination of all of the above. The way my peers view games and their role in mediating their children's consumption of games is markedly different than their parents before them. I suspect that within a generation the whole situation will have largely been settled.

i have never seen an ao rated game iv been gaming since the atari so why does anyone care if the esrb has an ao or not?? id rather they left it maybe 1 day a game just might pass to the public as ao who knows it could be the next man hunt. im 24 i can handle it.. so why are ppl acting like the esrb having an ao rating is hurting anything?? i really dont understand why the esrb is getting bashed so much the damn thing is easy to understand.. what the hell you want a damn manual from them stating word for word whats in the disc

@TJLK

if you removes the AO rating, what do you do with the games that currently get AO ratings? i'm not talking about the controversial manhunts and thrill kills, i'm talking about games like "captain pornography's tentacle adventure" (made up title don't know if it really exists) you can't just say that should be an M rated game, and forcing it to go without rating doesn't change the problem at all

@ TJLK

Except movies and games can not be released without a rating, you can't do away with the AO rating. To do so the next strongest rating present is an M.

Lets go by the closest medium to games, movies. To do away with the NC-17 rating the movie would now be rated to the closest thing "R." To have an R rating there are so much of one thing that can be present, NO SEX is one, they skim this rule by showing "blanket sex" not full sex. But NC-17 has full sex scenes, by getting rid of NC-17 it should be R, but it can't be given an R. So movie goes unrated.

Same goes for games, only so much of certian things gets ratings. You can't show full on sex (which would certianly found in an AO) in an M rated game. You can skim by making it cartoony, bluring, or just not showing it.

Granted one can always shovve things to the internet without getting it rated. But to get it released in a retailer you have to get it rated. Retailers will not carry an AO, or NC-17 (Best Buy has sold NC-17, but it's rare) The ESRB has no power to tell retailers to stock games rated AO. What whould there threat be "Stock this or we won't rate it"? Retailers will laugh game industry will go "damn it!" ESRB holds power over games, but that the limited power they have.

@TJKL
You are missing the point again, and I'm starting to worry you are doing it on purpose, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt and try one more time: Blaming the limited distribution of "AO"-rated games on the "AO" rating itself is like blaming the poor box office sales of a movie on a critic's bad review. Suggesting that removing the "AO" rating from the system would magically remove all the problems the mainstream market has with the content of "AO"-rated games is like saying that if Roger Ebert stopped using his "thumbs down" judgments, all movies would suddenly be "thumb up" good. Your arguments are backwards.

@Ebonheart
I agree with your sentiments but you are mistaken on the facts.

There is absolutely no U.S. law (or active state or local law as far as I know) which requires a movie be rated before it is released. Any such law would be a violation of the First Amendment. Visit your local art film theater, check the shelves at your local DVD retailer, or browse though Netflix and you will find a plethora of "unrated" movies for sale or rent.

The same goes for games. There is no law requiring they be rated, and there are thousands of unrated games that are easily available to consumers. For example, nearly every GameStop/EB I have ever visited sells used games for NES, Genesis, and other old systems, that are unrated because they were released before 1994, when there wasn't an ESRB in existence to rate them.

@Kei
It seems yours is another comment that favors ESRB raters playing games but gives no explanation of how this would be beneficial. How would limited play time help the ratings process? Once you allow "cheating," you are no longer experiencing the game as it was intended anyway. Why not just consider the video submitted by the publisher to be one big "cheat code" that skips ahead to all the noteworthy content contained in a game?

As it stands, it is the publisher's responsibility completely to submit any and all potentially objectionable content to the ESRB for rating. That is how the system works, and it's working better than any other system of its type, according to most analysts. If you want to change the way the system works (such as requiring raters to have limited play time), you need to explain how that will make the system work better than it currently does.

Also, ALL rating systems are subjective. That is not that same thing as being broken. Reconsider the purpose to the ratings system. Visit the websites of the ESRB or MPAA is you have questions. These organizations fully understand that their work is subjective, and plainly state that they exist to give age-appropriateness suggestions, not laws. Taking those ratings as anything more than suggestions, in a legal sense, is ethically incorrect and constitutionally dangerous.

@ Stinking Kevin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Production_Code Later revamped in 1966 and renamed the MPAA.

Correction

The Production Code was rewritten in 1960 for the MPAA.

And your correct about games, on the other hand compnies such as Microsoft and Sony won't let games on their consoles that have not been rated.

UK though diffrent story on movies http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_Recordings_Act_1984
 
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