Happy Birthday ESRB: Game Biz Unveiled Rating System to Congress 15 Years Ago

July 29, 2009 -

It was 15 years ago today that the video game industry introduced the ESRB rating system to Congress, reports Wired's This Day in Tech blog.

The move came in the wake of Congressional criticism of game violence, particularly the original Mortal Kombat, which seems laughably tame by today's standards. Wired's Chris Kohler writes:

The [Congressional] hearings were largely a response to the popularity of... Mortal Kombat...

Nintendo chairman Howard Lincoln and Sega vice president Bill White took potshots at each other during the hearing. Lincoln said that the Sega CD game Night Trap, another photorealistic, occasionally violent game that the company had rated MA-17, “simply has no place in our society” and testified that “small children” had bought it.

Meanwhile, White’s position was that Sega was more responsible than Nintendo, because his company had [its own] rating system in place...  [Connecticut Sen. Joe] Lieberman would later express his shock that the two executives went after each other with such ferocity.

Lieberman's threat to regulate game content via legislation persuaded the game biz to get its act together. The IDSA (now known as the ESA) was formed and quickly set up the ESRB, which went into operation on September 1st, 1994.

Alabama Attorney General Backs ESRB Ratings

July 21, 2009 -

Alabama Attorney General Troy King (R) has become the latest high-ranking state official to endorse the video game industry's content rating system.

In a press release issued yesterday, King announced a public service ad campaign designed to raise parental awareness of the ESRB rating system. The PSAs featuring King will air on radio and TV.

The A.G. commented on the campaign in yesterday's press release:

I know parents face tough decisions these days about the media they allow into their homes. There’s simply no substitute, though, for parental involvement and responsibility, and it’s important that parents play an active role in choosing games for their children. ESRB ratings are an effective and informative resource that allows parents to decide if the video game their child wants is appropriate, and rating summaries provide even more insight into exactly what a parent would want to know about in a game. I’m proud to be educating parents in our state about the tools at their disposal.

As GamePolitics has noted in the past, such campaigns are a sweet deal for the politicians involved. The ESRB picks up the cost of production for the spots and elected officials get a chance to show voters that they are concerned about children.

Readers can see King's PSA (as well as those made by other political figures) at the ESRB website.

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Boston Mayor Who Forced GTA Ads from Public Transit Now Appears on Buses Pushing ESRB

July 2, 2009 -

It wasn't that long ago that Boston Mayor Thomas Menino forced the removal of ads for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories from public transit vehicles operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority. Menino's office also pushed (unsuccessfully) for video game legislation last year.

Thus, there's irony aplenty to be found in seeing Menino's face plastered onto Boston buses, courtesy of the ESRB.

Last month GamePolitics broke the news that Menino was partnering with the ESRB on a public service ad campaign designed to raise parental awareness of the video game industry's content rating system. The bus ads are just a piece of that campaign which also includes TV spots, radio ads and outdoor print ads.

Locally, the Boston Globe and Boston-based Joystiq blogger Alexander Sliwinski have both taken note of the appearance of Menino's mug on local public transit. According to the Globe, the ESRB forked over $43,195 to the MBTA for the three-month bus ad campaign.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Menino is running for re-election this year. Prof. John Berg of the Suffolk University government department commented on the ads:

They can do this stuff, which is no doubt intended to help the [re-election] campaign, but looks very legitimate because they’re taking advantage of their role as head of the city.

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ESRB Wants App Store Rating Content Business... But What About Xbox Indie Games and Other Burning Questions

June 15, 2009 -

The recent discussion concerning the ESA's desire to have its rating organization, the ESRB, evaluate game content for the iTunes App Store brings a number of questions to mind:

1.) Why?

Having watched how corporations, lobbyists and their related entities do business for some time now, I'm too jaded to believe that ESA/ESRB wants to jump into rating App Store games for the good of society or because it's the right thing to do. This would, after all, be a significant commitment of ESRB resources. Generally such things happen because there is revenue to be made or there's power to be grabbed.

Despite its present chaotic nature, the App Store is a rising star in the game space. Getting in on the ground floor would be a coup for the ESRB. Apple has a lot of money, too, and the ESRB is paid a fee by the developer/publisher for each game it rates. Despite my cynicism, ESRB spokesman Eliot Mizrachi told me that it's not about the Benjamins:

ESRB is a non-profit organization funded by the revenue generated from the services we provide the industry.  Given our highly discounted rate for lower-budget games, rating mobile games is not a financially attractive proposition; however we believe making ESRB ratings available for those games would serve consumers well.  Parents are already familiar with ESRB ratings and find them to be extremely helpful in making informed choices for their families.  
 
To be clear, our desire is to see Apple integrate ESRB ratings as an option in its parental controls and display a game’s rating (if it has one, the ratings are voluntary after all) in the App Store or on iTunes prior to purchase, not to require that every game available via an iPhone carry an ESRB rating (just as not every piece of video content available will carry an MPAA or TV rating). 

 

Apple’s integration of ESRB ratings into its parental controls for iPhone games would afford parents the ability to block those video games that carry an ESRB rating utilizing the same tool they are being offered to block video content that has been rated by the MPAA or carries an official TV rating.  It’s about giving parents the same ability to do on the iPhone what they are being offered with other entertainment content and can already do on game consoles and other handheld game devices.     

2.) What would it cost?

I asked the ESRB what it costs a developer/publisher to have a typical console game rated?  Would the cost to rate an iPhone game be less? Mizrachi said:

Our standard fees for getting a game rated cover the costs of providing that service.  However, to make accommodations for lower-budget product like casual and mobile games, several years ago we introduced a highly discounted rate - 80% less - for games that cost under $250,000 to develop.  We believe most iPhone games would likely be eligible for the discounted rate.

3.) Isn't this a lot of extra work for ESRB?

Mizrachi was asked whether the ESRB has the capacity to handle an influx of iPhone games for rating. His response:

ESRB has seen increases in rating submissions each year since its founding and has always been able to keep pace.  We have rated more than 70 mobile games to date and will undoubtedly rate more in the future as the market grows.  Consumers of those mobile games that have been assigned ESRB ratings should have access to rating information, and if parental controls are available, the ESRB rating should ideally be operable within that framework. 

4.) If the ESRB plans to do App Store games, what about Xbox 360 Community Games (soon to be known as Indie Games)? 

I also asked Mizrachi about the indie games on XBL. Wouldn’t they seem to be a more natural focus for the ESRB before targeting iTunes? Mizrachi said:

Once XNA games graduate to XBLA they are rated by ESRB... ESRB isn't "targeting" iPhone games.


5.) Who would pay for ESRB to rate App Store games?

Not the creators of $0.99 games, for the most part. They are apparently not making significant revenue. Apple has a deep pocket, of course, although they are not the creator of the games for sale on the App Store. Perhaps the larger industry players such as EA, Namco, etc. would foot the bill for their games. They are already accustomed to dealing with the ESRB.

6.) If only some games are rated, why bother?

But then again, if only the commercial game apps from major publishers are rated, how does that stop your kid from downloading Baby Shaker or Hot Dog Down a Hallway? The foundation for the retail employment of ESRB rating is its ubiquity. Major retailers won't carry non-rated games. Thus, parents have a reasonable expectation that their 12-year-old will be turned down if he tries to buy GTA IV. If not all App Store games are rated, such an expectation is not applicable. So, what's the point?

Hopefully we will learn more about the ESRB's plan as we go forward.

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NIMF's Walsh Lauds ESA for Pushing ESRB at App Store Games

June 15, 2009 -

The ESA & ESRB (which is owned by ESA) have recently begun a push to bring the videogame industry's content rating system to that wild frontier of gaming known as the iTunes App Store.

The ESA plan has now received support from a rather unexpected source.

Dr. David Walsh of the National Institute on Media & the Family has weighed in with an endorsement of ESA boss Mike Gallagher's offer to have the ESRB rate App Store games. In a statement released late on Friday, Walsh said:

Michael Gallagher deserves considerable credit for his foresight in identifying the latest challenge for parents, the gaming industry and the ESRB. As gaming technology continues to advance and games become more accessible via online downloads and phone applications, parents will need new tools to keep inappropriate games out of their kids’ hands.

 

Gallagher took a great first step offering to work with Apple to ensure inappropriate content does not make its way into kids’ lives. I hope Apple accepts his offer and reaches out to other organizations like the ESRB and non-industry groups who are concerned about this issue and can offer valuable insight.

GP: As GamePolitics reported last September,  the National Institute on Media & the Family was the recipient of a $50,000 grant from the ESA Foundation.

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Ratings Creep? Sh*t Common in T-rated Games

June 11, 2009 -

Is the S-word more prevalent in T-rated (13 and older) games these days? And if so, is it a problem?

What They Play looks at the issue:

We’ve perceived a gradual shift in the "strength" of much of the language used in [T-rated] games’ scripts... our reviewers have described the use of certain words with more frequency; most notably the word "s**t."...

 

Recent Teen-rated games that have used the word include... InFamous on PlayStation 3... Wheelman... Battlefield: Bad Company... Mirror’s Edge... HAWX, and... Tom Clancy’s Endwar.

ESRB President Patricia Vance offered the content rating organization's perspective:

Assigning ratings to language in video games is less straight-forward than many people may realize... how we evaluate language when assigning ratings has remained relatively consistent over the years, with factors like frequency and intensity having always been particularly relevant...

 

There's no question that the average parent is sensitive to the language to which their children are exposed, just as they are to sexual or violent content. That's why one of our 'language' content descriptors will always be assigned to a T-rated game that contains profanity.

What They Play concludes that while sh*t is here to stay, overall the language in T-rated games remains a bit more regulated than that found in PG-13 movies.

GP: The concept of "ratings creep," in which what is acceptable within a rating gradually expands to encompass content once barred, has been found by Harvard researchers in relation to movie ratings. Could the same gradual process be afoot with ESRB categories?

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ESA Boss Willing to Apply ESRB Ratings to App Store Games

June 9, 2009 -

Do games on the iTunes App Store need to carry ESRB ratings?

In recent times there have been a number of questionable developments in regard to iPhone apps. Some were banned that perhaps shouldn't have been. Others were cleared for sale despite containing questionable content.

Kotaku reports that ESA boss Mike Gallagher would be open to working with Apple on rating App Store games:

We’ve been down this road before, the entertainment software industry, we know how this goes and it’s wise for (Apple) to make steps in that direction so that this is addressed up front and there is an environment that is hospitable to children and families. It would be wise to do that, we would welcome the opportunity to work with them, we are reaching out to encourage that.

 

That doesn’t mean that every entrepreneur, every software engine that is able to write code and put up an app on the App Store is going to go through this process it simply says that if a game is rated it needs to pass through and be filtered appropriately by the controls that are on the iPhone. That would be a big step in the right direction and it is virtually friction free.

GP: While App Store offerings clearly need some kind of coherent rating system, it's unclear whether the ESRB is the right vehicle. As Gallagher notes, there is a high volume of games on the App Store. If all are not to be rated, of what value is a rating system? Who decides which games need to be rated? What is the ESRB's operational capacity to absorb App Store games into its workload?

Not mentioned by Gallagher, but clearly a factor, are the fees paid by developers to the ESRB have games rated. As GamePolitics reported just yesterday, most App Store games are not making money. Will small-time developers of $0.99 games who are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle on the App Store participate in a rating system which requires them to fork over to the ESRB up front? It seems unlikely.

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Kansas Attorney General Teams Up with ESRB on Ratings Awareness

June 9, 2009 -

Steve Six (D), the Attorney General of Kansas, has become the latest high-level state official to sign on in support of the video game industry's ESRB rating system.

A press release posted last week on Six's website includes the A.G.'s reminder to parents to make use of ESRB ratings:

With school out for the summer, kids may spend more time playing video games.  Parents must be vigilant about the media they allow into their homes. There's simply no substitute for parental involvement and responsibility, and it's important that parents play an active role in choosing games for their children. 

 

ESRB ratings are an effective and informative resource that allows parents to decide if the video game their child wants is appropriate, and rating summaries provide even more insight into exactly what a parent would want to know about in a game.  I'm proud to be educating parents in our state about the tools at their disposal.

Six will deliver the ESRB message on public service announcement on radio and T.V. in Kansas. The televised version PSA can be viewed on the ESRB website (scroll down to "Statewide TV").

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Why Fret Over Japanese Ban? RapeLay Is Already Banned in the U.S.

May 29, 2009 -

The embers of the RapeLay controversy were stirred a bit yesterday with a report that the game - and others of its ilk - had been banned in Japan. Not by the government, mind you, but by an industry standards organization.

As it turned out, the report was false, but it prompted a great deal of hand-wringing about Japanese censorship. And yet, RapeLay is already banned - in advance - in the United States by an industry standards organization: the ESRB. Again, it's not a government ban, but it is a de facto ban.

Think about it. Video game retailers won't carry unrated games, which would require RapeLay's publisher to submit the software to the ESRB for a rating. Given its digusting subject matter, RapeLay would certainly be tagged with the quickest AO (adults only) rating ever issued by the ESRB. If you think back to the 2007 Manhunt 2 situation, you'll recall that major retailers won't carry AO-rated games and console manufacturers won't license them. That last bit wouldn't be a problem for RapeLay, of course, since it's a PC game.

Yes, the game could still be sold online by independents. Even governments have a hard time stopping that. But the AO rating is retail death and everyone in the video game business understands that. No publisher would waste their time and money submitting a RapeLay to the ESRB, which is why I maintain that such games are banned in advance. I don't have a problem with any of this, by the way. It's how the system was designed to work. True, there are occasional calls for a marketable AO rating. But the ESRB would probably need to create an XXX rating to accomodate games like RapeLay if AO ever became acceptable to Wal-Mart and GameStop.

And while RapeLay's developers are within their rights to create a game based upon sexual violence and pedophilia, retailers are certainly within theirs not to carry the game. Women's groups are free to protest its messages. And the rest of us are free to be creeped out by RapeLay.

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Colorado Attorney General Partners with ESRB on Ratings Awareness

May 28, 2009 -

Yesterday GamePolitics broke the news that Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is partnering with the ESRB for a public service ad campaign designed to raise parental awareness of the industry's video game rating system.

Colorado Springs TV station KRDO-13 is now reporting that Colorado Attorney General John Suthers (R) has also jumped on board the ESRB bus. A press release on Suther's website quotes the A.G.:

I know parents face tough decisions these days about the media they allow into their homes. There’s simply no substitute for parental involvement and responsibility, and it is important that parents play an active role in choosing games for their children. ESRB ratings are an effective and informative resource that allows parents to decide if the video game their child wants is appropriate.

Suthers' message to parents will be broadcast on Colorado TV and radio.

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Ars Technica Examines Industry's Struggle to Deal with Gay & Lesbian Gamers

May 28, 2009 -

The debate over gay marriage is raging in California and elsewhere, but the video game industry has its own gay rights issues to address. From Xbox Live's banning of certain gamertags to Bioware's recent Star Wars: The Old Republic forum flap, the game biz has handled its relations with its gay and lesbian customers ham-handedly at times.

Over at Ars Technica, Ben Kuchera surveys the situation and talks with, among others, Flynn DeMarco (left), editor of GayGamer:

Being able to identify as gay or lesbian in an online gaming perspective has its positives and negatives. The negatives being obvious in that they face endless harassment. The positives are that maybe you can connect and play with someone else without having to listen to a litany of gay jokes and 'fag' insults...


...repressing GLBT visibility in forums, even with good intentions, only makes it safer and more acceptable to use hate speech. Visibility is key to equality...

 

I definitely feel that the LGBT issues are part of the larger issue of gaming's immature treatment of sex...

ESRB spokesman Eliot Mizrachi offered the perspective of the video game industry's content rating organization:

We've encountered the issue of same-sex content before—the boy-boy kiss in Bully being one example...

 

While there aren't any content descriptors that specifically identify same-sex content, our raters are trained to consider these types of elements within the context of the overall game, and to weigh those factors, among others...

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Boston Mayor to Partner with ESRB on Ratings Awareness Campaign

May 27, 2009 -

He has been one of the video game industry's most aggressive critics in the past, but GamePolitics has learned that Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (D) will partner with the ESRB on a public service ad campaign designed to raise parental awareness of the video game rating system.

The campaign, unveiled in Boston by Menino and ESRB President Patricia Vance, will feature T.V. and radio ads as well as outdoor print ads. Of the media blitz, Menino said:

Parents want control of the media that comes into their homes, and the entertainment that their children enjoy. That’s why it’s so imperative that we educate parents about useful and informative tools like the ESRB ratings and rating summaries, so they’ll be empowered to make informed choices about which games they deem appropriate.  I’m proud to be educating parents in our city about the tools at their disposal.

With today's news, Menino joins a number of high-profile elected officials around the country who have partnered with the ESRB on game ratings awareness campaigns over the past several years. Given Menino's track record as a video game industry critic, the turnabout is especially significant.

In 2006 Menino led a campaign to have Grand Theft Auto ads removed from public transit. In 2007 his office flirted with video game legislation authored by Jack Thompson. The Boston Mayor's video game bill was eventually submitted to the legislature in 2008, but died in committee.

Menino, who earlier this year touted Boston as a game industry-friendly city in an effort to attract jobs, is running for an unpredecented fifth term as mayor.

Utah Bill Sponsor Blames Guv's Veto on Gamer E-mails

March 26, 2009 -

As GamePolitics reported yesterday, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman vetoed HB 353, the Jack Thompson video game/movie bill that would have targeted retailers who sold M-rated games or R-rated movies to minors.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Mike Morley (R-UT), told the Salt Lake Tribune:

I think it's simply a result of an e-mail campaign from a lot of gamers that misrepresent the bill and [the governor's staff] has not studied it closely enough to recognize that is not the case. I think it was crafted very carefully to avoid those issues and I think they're mistaken.

However, a source close to Utah state politics told GamePolitics yesterday that Gov. Huntsman was the subject of intense lobbying from retailers. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the Entertainment Software Association mounted a major lobbying campaign as well.

Morley complained to the Deseret News that the Guv didn't give him a courtesy call before vetoing the bill:

I would have thought that just common courtesy would have been to call me.

Legislators are now deciding whether to pursue an override of the veto.

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First Amendment Expert Considers Final Version of Utah Video Game/Movie Bill

March 25, 2009 -

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is now considering whether to sign into law HB 353, the Jack Thompson-conceived video game and movie bill. The Guv has until approximately April 1st to make that decision. In the meantime, the National Coalition Against Censorship, among others, has urged Huntsman to veto the measure.

Along that line, GamePolitics readers may recall that last month, when HB 353 was introduced into the Utah House by Rep. Mike Morley (R), we asked Prof. Clay Calvert, Co-Director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State, to offer his view of the original text of the bill.

Since that time, HB 353 has been substantially amended along the way to passage by the Utah legislature. That being the case, earlier this week we asked Prof. Calvert to revisit the final version of the bill. If you'd like to refer to the subsections mentioned by Prof. Calvert, you'll find them by hitting the jump.

Prof. Calvert's analysis follows:

The [safe harbor] defense provision of [HB 353] (g)(i)(A) not only is vague (what constitutes a documented training program? What is required by Utah to count as such a program?  With whom must it be documented?  Utah?), but it actually is quite burdensome because it only works if a store affirmatively adopts such a training program.  

The defense provision of (g)(i)(B) is helpful to stores because it prevents liability in the case where a minor engages in fraud to purchase a game by using a fake ID. That's a positive step in this revised legislation (which is NOT to say the legislation itself is positive).

One major concern is turning what the bill specifically identifies as a "recommendation" into a mandatory command. The recommendation is made by a private party (presumably the ESRB) and the government now is employing it with the force of law.

 

The National Coalition Against Censorship makes a great point when it states that this bill, "by incorporating the private voluntary ratings system... constitutes an unlawful delegation of legislative authority to a non-governmental entity."

In particular, there is significant legal precedent for this point in the context of violent video game statutes.  In July 2006, a federal district court in Minnesota in the case of Entertainment Software Association v. Hatch... issued an injunction prohibiting that state from enforcing a law that fined those minors under 17 years of age for renting or purchasing video games rated AO or M by the ESRB...

 

A second major concern is that section (u)(ii) simply applies if one "provides that good or service to a buyer subject to the age restriction or recommendation." The law could be improved if it applied to one who "provides that good or service to buyer knowing the age restriction or recommendation on the good or service AND knowing that the buyer is under the age of the restriction or recommendation." 

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Techie Blogger Mom Calls For Guv to Veto Utah Video Game/Movie Bill

March 21, 2009 -

A Utah mom has come out swinging against HB 353. The Jack Thompson-conceived bill, overwhelmingly passed by the Utah House and Senate, is currently just a stroke of Gov. Jon Huntsman's (R) pen away from becoming law.

Misty Fowler (left) is a software developer, mother of two and activist Democrat.

She also pens the politically-oriented Saintless blog.

Fowler writes:

I didn’t feel like [Utah Senate sponsor Margaret] Dayton [R] and [Utah House sponsor Mike] Morley [R] came out to share details of the bill, but to introduce it with the idea that this isn’t a punitive bill, so that maybe we would all have warm fuzzies about how good this was for our children. Because really, think of the children, will you?...

As a parent, I feel very strongly that it’s my responsibility to my children to educate them about what they can play, and why...


The ESRB is accomplishing what it should... The Utah Legislature seems to be approving of ESRB by trying to enforce it...

I don’t want this law passed. Not because I don’t want to protect children. But, because I think it’s a bogus attempt to regulate the ESRB, and won’t do anything for our children. It will cost local businesses money, and is likely to remove some great tools I have in making decisions about video games as a parent.

Ask Governor Huntsman to veto it.

Fowler also questions the bill, given Jack Thompson's involvement.

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Utah Bill Sponsor Responds to ESRB, Questions Game Biz Commitment to Ratings

March 11, 2009 -

The sponsor of a Utah bill that could punish sales of M-rated games to minors with false advertising charges has questioned the video game industry's commitment to its own rating system in an e-mail to GamePolitics.

GP readers may recall that last Friday, ESRB President Patricia Vance penned an unprecedented open letter to "Utah's parents and leaders."

In the letter, Vance took issue with HB 353, a bill originally conceived by disbarred Miami attorney Jack Thompson. The measure passed the Utah House last week by an overwhelming 70-2 majority and is now under consideration by the State Senate.

Although the amended bill passed by the Utah House was substantially watered down in comparison to its original version, it is clearly still a source of concern to the video game industry, hence the Vance letter.

GamePolitics asked Utah Rep. Mike Morley (R), the sponsor of the bill, to comment on the ESRB's open letter. We received Morley's response last night and are re-printing it here, in full:

It is interesting to me, given the voluntary efforts and the pledges taken by many retailers to work with parents and children to understand the appropriateness of video game content, that a bill such as HB 353 would have any concern at all for them, particularly given the safe harbors I have provided in the bill.  It causes me concern when I see a letter such as [Vance's] which threatens to completely withdrawn efforts and leads me to believe that the video game industry is not truly committed to the standards they espouse in their advertising.

HB 353 is not punitive.  It gives safe harbor to retailers who provide training and to their employees.  This provides protection to those retailers whose practice corresponds to their stated intent of refusing to sell inappropriate materials to minors.  I would think good retailers who enforce their stated policies, as well as industry at large, would welcome this legislation.  Only those bad actors who are receiving good will for advertising family-friendly policies and then not enforcing that policy would have any potential affect from HB 353.

I applaud ESRB for their work over the past decade and a half. Certainly, their efforts to regulate the gaming industry and implement an effective rating program which is embraced by the producers of both games and gaming equipment is a significant accomplishment and provides peace of mind to parents across the nation.  As the father of eight sons who all love to play video games, I express my appreciation for their efforts.

As I have been made aware of the content – explicit sexuality, rape, murder, graphic violence, gore – contained in many of the Mature games, I have great concern about this material reaching even one child.  While there is nothing I or ESRB can do about that, we can support actions which will require accountability of those few retailers in our state who consistently disregard their own advertised policies, policies upon which parents rely for an added layer of protection for their children.

GP: HB353 is now listed on the Utah State Senate's debate calendar. If it is to be passed, that action must occur by tomorrow midnight.

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PC World: Utah Game Bill "Dangerously Wrong"

March 9, 2009 -

PC World's Matt Peckham weighs in on HB 353, the much-discussed Utah bill originally drafted by Jack Thompson.

Peckham agrees with ESRB President Patricia Vance that the bill could prove to be a disincentive to Utah retailers to do the right thing:

The most recent amended version of H.B. 353 is a sobering bellwether of much worse to come if it passes the Utah state senate... Instead of ensuring game retailers do as they say, the bill in fact encourages them to do the exact opposite and stop promising they won't sell Mature-rated games like Fable 2 and Fallout 3 and Resident Evil 5 to underage kids and/or teens.

That's because Utah's H.B. 353 effectively criminalizes retail sales of video games to customers who don't meet a game's ratings strictures...

 

The non-cynical view: H.B. 353 is an attempt to pull game ratings under the umbrella of Utah's prevailing "truth in advertising" guidelines.

The cynical view: The bill's promoters are trying to backdoor anti-ESRB legislation by using a potentially over-broad state policy to increase governmental control of private sector activities and declare self-regulatory triumphs null and void...

UPDATE: Jack Thompson has posted a reply to Peckham's column:

All [major retailers] have publicly committed, and promised Congress, that they will participate in the game rating system and abide by it... They simply cannot now opt out of the ESRB system... Their public endorsement of the rating system is an "advertisement" under this bill...

 

[ESRB head Patricia] Vance says their is an industry "audit" which says that Utah game retailers are 94% compliant with the game ratings. She refuses to produce the audit...

GP: I must point out that Thompson's assertion that a company's merely signing on to abide by the ESRB ratings constitutes an "advertisement" seems a dubious one, at best.

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As Utah Bill Nears Passage, ESRB Head Pens Open Letter to Politicians & Parents

March 7, 2009 -

While the Utah State Senate mulls HB 353, a bill which would add age rating offenses to the state's existing Truth in Advertising law, ESRB President Patricia Vance has penned an open letter to "Utah's parents and leaders."

Vance called HB 353 a "grave mistake" and warned that it could undo years of effort by the ESRB and video game retailers to keep inappropriate content from underage players:

So why is this bill likely to put an end to those very efforts it seeks to support? On its face such an amendment makes good sense; after all, if a retailer says they’re going to do something, they should do it, right?

 

While the intent of this legislation would be to hold retailers accountable for compliance with their stated policies – presumably in that negligible 6% of instances where they fail to comply – the unfortunate reality is that it would introduce a liability that will likely force many retailers to seriously consider abandoning their voluntary policies and ratings education programs, undoing years of progress made on behalf of parents and their children.

The bill passed the Utah House, albeit in a somewhat diluted fashion, last week by a 70-2 margin.

For the full text of Vance's letter, hit the jump.

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GP's Live Coverage of Philly Game Violence Hearing

March 6, 2009 -

The Children and Youth Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives held a hearing on video game violence today at City Hall in Philadelphia.

Rep. Ronald Waters (D, left) appeared to be the point person for the hearing, although Rep. Louise Bishop, who chairs the committee, was also on hand. As GamePolitics has previously reported, Rep. Waters has been questioning the role of violent video games in real-world violence for some time. Since Philly is his home turf, so it's not surprising that he took the lead.

GamePolitics was on hand for most of the hearing and supplied a live feed via Twitter. We also secured some video of the proceedings which we will get uploaded to YouTube over the weekend.

Four witnesses testified:

  • a project manager from the Philadelphia chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police
  • Prof. Patrick Markey of nearby Villanova University
  • Two members of the Legislature's research organization
     

Here are the actual GP posts to Twitter. They are original, except that we've added endings that Twitter truncated in a few cases:

  1. I am heading out to cover video game violence hearings in Philly today. A state legislator is chairing. I will be tweeting from the hearing... 
  2. Just arrived at philly city council... Witness not well informed. Said that law on books in PA to prevent minors from buying m-rated games. But that's incorrect...
  3. Dr. Patrick Markey now testifying as to difference between correlation and causation. Markey has done research, generally favorable to games in past...
  4. Markey says violent games have a small, but consistent effect, but only on certain kids with pre-dispositions...
  5. Rep. Waters spends about 7 mins criticizing violent games with police shooting. This is a big issue in Philly lately as we have lost a lot of cops...
  6. Rep. Waters said that the industry pulled 25 to Life off shelves. That is not correct...
  7. Poor Prof. Markey seems to be serving as a proxy for the game biz. The reps. Are directing their anger about games at him...
  8. ESA apparently mailed in their testimony. The reps mentioned written testimony from ESA VP Sally Jefferson.
  9. Prof. Markey still getting follow-ups. Rep now wants to clarify Markey's suggested correlation numbers...
  10. Rep. is bringing up that military uses games to train personnel, so it must be an effective way to train people to do things.
  11. 2 guys up now from PA Joint State Govt Commission, research wing of PA legislature. They were asked to look into violent games. GP reported on this in late 2008.
  12. These guys are not telling the reps what they want to hear... Letting them know that game laws invariably unconstitutional...
  13. Wow, one of the reps just raised the idea of a five per cent tax on violent games to fund public education on game ratings...
  14. Rep. Samuelson suggests no public funds should be allocated to violent game developers - the Texas model (although he is unaware of that, clearly)...
  15. Rep. Murphy suggests that the state should mandate parental controls.... Guess he doesn't realize that they are already built in...
  16. Reps are upset over line in state report that players can get some benefits from violent games. 3 [Reps.] have now have objected.
  17. I've taken some shaky cam video here, but just found a nice, steady place to put my camera... Will post vids on YouTube tonite or tomorrow
  18. Rep. Waters again said that the game biz pulled 25 to Life off market, which is not true. Plus, he keeps calling it 21 to Life
  19. Rep. Waters asking what are penalties for selling violent games to minors.
  20. Rep. Cox (?) asking why games are so bad compared to violent movies, music, etc. High praise for ESRB, talks about parental responsibility...
  21. Chairwoman is asking about parental control features. Rep. Samuelson back again complaining about that phrase "violent games can have beneficial effects"
  22. Rep. Youngblood asks if violent games desensitize kids to death.
  23. Hearing now over.

GP: Although the representatives seemed quite frustrated with violent games during the earlier part of the hearing, by its end they had calmed down a good bit. In particular, the testimony of Dr. Markey and the two gentlemen from the PA Joint State Government Commission seemed to allay many of their concerns with information about research, parental controls and the ESRB ratings, as well as past failures of video game legislation. Of course, that's not to say that the issue was decided today.

Both Markey and the Joint Commission employees who testified were part of the Pennsylvania Task Force on Violent Interactive Video Games, which, as GamePolitics reported in December, recommended against legislating games.

Nice Work If You Can Get It: ESA, ESRB Heads Make the Big Bucks

February 27, 2009 -

Despite a bumpy two-year run which has seen a 25% membership drop and a disastrous 2008 E3, Michael Gallagher, CEO of the Entertainment Software Association, is doing okay for himself.

IRS records filed by the ESA indicate that Gallagher was paid $789,929 for the reporting period of April 1, 2007 to March 31, 2008. Since Gallagher didn't take over at the ESA until late May of 2007, or almost two months into the reporting period, we can probably assume that his annual salary was actually a bit higher. Additionally, Gallagher collected $19,015 in benefits.

By way of comparison, Gallagher's predecessor, Doug Lowenstein, earned $744,344 for the prior year, plus a benefits package valued at $96,616.

It's only fair to point out in Gallagher's defense that many of the conditions which led to a downsized E3 and drastically elevated membership fees were in place before he was hired.

On the same document the ESA reports the salary of ESRB President Patricia Vance as $535,397. It's apparent that the head of the video game industry's rating body has bounced back nicely from the 2005 Hot Coffee fiasco. Highlighted by a successful outreach program to parents and public service messages delivered in concert with various state-level political officials, the ESRB seems to be performing at peak efficiency.

8 comments

Full Frontal in GTA IV Lost & Damned

February 16, 2009 -

When I ponder the things that I'd like to see in video games someday, a fully nekkid Congressman is not high on the list.

Nonetheless, Kotaku reports that a cut scene in GTA IV: The Lost and Damned, scheduled to release tomorrow, features a male character displayed with full frontal nudity:

[Congressman] Stubbs, in his first meeting with lead character Johnny Klebbitz, is receiving a massage at the private gentleman's club Jousters when we meet him. The Congressman, dressed in nothing but a towel, quickly becomes pretty comfortable with his new biker friend, choosing to deliver his monologue in the buff...

The ESRB rating for the game—which is "M" for Mature—does make mention of the gratuitous digital d*ck on display, noting that the game has "Nudity" in its content. The original Grand Theft Auto IV is listed as having only "Partial nudity."

Retailers' Trade Group Weighs in Against Warning Label Bill for Games

February 12, 2009 -

The Entertainment Merchants Association, the trade group which represents the interests of numerous video game retailers, has weighed in against game-oriented legislation currently before the Congress.

GamePolitics readers will recall last month's report that Rep. Joe Baca (D-CA) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) had proposed a measure in Congress which would require cigarette-like warning labels for any game rated T (13+) or higher by the ESRB.

The EMA has termed the proposed legislation "unnecessary."

As we have previously noted, Rep. Baca has proposed a number of bills targeting video games over the years. To date, none have passed. In 2008 Esquire named him to its list of Ten Worst Members of Congress.

UPDATE: We've received the EMA's full statement on the Baca bill:

Retailers educate parents about the ESRB video game ratings and content descriptors and enforce the "Mature" rating at the point of sale. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission found that children it sent into video game stores to buy Mature-rated games were turned down 80% of the time.

 

The video game turn-down rate is higher than the turn-down rate for movie theaters and R-rated tickets, DVD retailers and R-rated and “unrated” DVDs, and music retailers and “Parental Advisory”-labeled albums. In fact, it is the highest turn-down rated ever recorded for an entertainment category in any of the undercover shopper surveys the FTC has conducted since 2000.

Iran NOT Joining ESRB

December 29, 2008 -

A report that Iran was "joining" the ESRB received wide play on game news sites last week. However, that information appears to be erroneous.

When the story first broke, GamePolitics immediately questioned the report, which originated in the Tehran Times.

We also put in a request to the ESRB for clarification. Spokesman Eliot Mizrachi took time from his holiday break to respond to GamePolitics:

Our ratings apply to games available at retail in the U.S. and Canada. No membership is required to submit games to ESRB.

 

Companies from other countries may submit for rating if the game is to be sold in the U.S. and/or Canadian market... Our ratings apply to games sold in the U.S. and Canada only...

 

We have not had any discussions with Iran about their adopting our rating system.
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Iran Adopting ESRB Ratings?

December 26, 2008 -

There is a somewhat curious report in the Tehran Times which says that Iran is "joining" the ESRB.

One interpretation of this is that the Iranian government will henceforth require that games sold there carry ESRB ratings. Another possibility is that the Iranians are instituting their own rating system and using "ESRB" generically, in the same way that xerox is commonly used to refer to copy machines.

We're guessing the latter, since comments from an Iranian official involved in the project indicate that some sort of local editing process took place. From the Tehran Times:

The managing director of the National Foundation for Computer Games Behruz Minaii announced that Iran will be joining the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) next week...

Minaii added that the idea of joining ESRB was initiated last year and since then, 20 experts from different religious, psychological, social and media organizations have worked on compiling the project.

“Afterwards, several members of the Guardian Council and scholars of the Qom Seminary and different universities of the country did the final editing,” he remarked.

The first part of the plan is now ready and the next parts will also be completed through establishing this organization, he stated.

We've got a request into the ESRB for clarification as to any potential involvement on their part.

Via: Kotaku
 

9 comments

ESRB Holiday Card

December 20, 2008 -

A nice card from the ESRB arrived in yesterday's e-mail...

16 comments

ESRB, GameStop See No Loophole in Animal Crossing Racial Slur Incident

December 8, 2008 -

Last week GamePolitics reported on a bizarre incident in which more than a dozen prominent game journalists were sent Animal Crossing: Wild World Nintendo DS cartridges which contained a racial slur.

MTV Multiplayer's Stephen Totilo, who broke the story, reports that he subsequently queried used game seller GameStop and the ESRB as to whether the Animal Crossing incident exposes a flaw in the system whereby embedded user-generated content might exceed the content rating.

Both GameStop and the ESRB view the Animal Crossing episode as an anomaly and deny a larger problem. MTV's Totilo writes:

ESRB spokesperson Eliot Mizrachi, told me... “Just as with online-enabled games that allow features like chat, ESRB ratings cannot anticipate and therefore consider user-generated content in the ratings we assign,” he wrote. “Besides, as you mentioned, saving content to the actual game medium is pretty uncommon in today’s games. Most games are read-only with the saved content being stored on the system and not on the game medium itself.”...

The ESRB may not have much reason to worry that questionable content will make it to consumers because gaming chain GameStop claims to be scrubbing the content from re-sold games. Chris Olivera, spokesman for GameStop, told me in a phone interview that his company has a “proprietary” process that wipes consoles and games clean before they are sold back to consumers...

GP: GameStop and the ESRB make a good case here. It's important to remember that the offending DS cart was not purchased through retail channels, but rather was mailed out by Nintendo's own PR department.

25 comments

Atlus Looks at the Bright Side of ESRB Info Leaks

December 8, 2008 -

To the understandable chagrin of publishers, more than a few video game websites have discovered that the ESRB can be an excellent source for scraps of news concerning unannounced titles.  For example, Siliconera spilled the beans on three upcoming Atlus titles in the last month just by cruising the ESRB's latest rating assignments.

For its part, Atlus (Persona, Trauma Center) responded by ribbing the industry’s ratings body with a jokey press release:

Our experiment has been a rousing success.  Allowing information about our upcoming titles to be silently posted on ESRB’s website has been a triumph, and we’ve decided to abandon all direct, overt disclosures of our future games in favor of quietly allowing the posting of new titles onto ESRB.org...

 

We’re sure we’ll have everyone doing this at some point, following in our footsteps.  And maybe at some point it will force us to change direction.  But in the mean time, we really feel that indirectly leaking all future game announcements and hoping a few people stumble upon them and tell everyone they know is the best way to go...

While it’s nice to see a publisher taking the high road, we wonder if Atlus itself isn't the one at fault here.  Since last June, publishers have had the option to request that the ESRB hold off on posting a game’s rating information until its official announcement or ship date.

Via: Siliconera
 
-Reporting from San Diego, GamePolitics Correspondent Andrew Eisen

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Porn Game Publisher Takes Issue with ESRB, Big Three

November 28, 2008 -

The publisher of a sex game has taken the video game industry and its U.S. content rating board to task.

As reported by Spong, D-Dub Software, which publishes BoneTown, claims that it will create an "adult video game industry." The sex game company says that it is frustrated by restrictions put in place by console manufacturers and the ESRB.

Currently, the big three system makers won't license games which are rated Adults Only (AO) by the ESRB, leaving only the PC as a potential development platform. However, major retailers won't stock AO games on any system, leaving online distribution as the only viable option for such products. D-Dub CEO "Hod" says that the company will pursue the online model:

It doesn’t make sense. The ratings boards are not telling us that these games aren’t for kids. We know that already. What they’re telling us is that adult games shouldn’t exist at all. We don’t agree, and neither does our customer base of adults who are interested in games that might include themes like sex, drugs, and language.

 

Since they’ve made it so that games like ours can’t be marketed and distributed through the channels other video games use, we are starting a new industry to get this game out to our customers.

Although the Spong article mentions that BoneTown has received an AO from the ESRB, we're not finding that using the ESRB search widget located in GP's lower right sidebar.

GP: Thanks to GP correspondent Andrew Eisen for the tip...

 

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Florida A.G. Once Fretted About Wiimote, Now on ESRB Bandwagon

November 28, 2008 -

When gamers last heard from Bill McCollum, the Florida Attorney General was fretting that the motion-controlled Wii version of Manhunt 2 would have a generation of kids practicing to be killers. As GamePolitics reported in June of 2007, McCollum apparently got that idea from Jack Thompson.

These days, McCollum is, like many political colleagues in other states, urging parents to follow ESRB content ratings while shopping for holiday gifts. A press release on his official website quotes the Republican A.G.:

Though the holiday season is one of the busiest times of year, it is also perhaps the most important time of the year for consumers to make sure they know what they're buying for their loved ones. The ESRB rating system provides parents and others with age and content information which can be informative tools when purchasing games for family and friends.

McCollum's press release also quotes ESRB head Patricia Vance as well as ESA CEO Michael Gallagher.

But not Jack Thompson.

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Nebraska Attorney General is Latest to Partner with ESRB on Ratings Ad Campaign

November 26, 2008 -

AS we enter the holiday shopping season, the ESRB has apparently been working overtime to gain endorsements for its content rating system from state-level political heavyweights.

In recent days GamePolitics has reported that key elected officials in Mississippi, Missouri, Kansas and New Jersey have endorsed the ESRB ratings.

The latest to climb on board is Nebraska's Attorney General Jon Bruning (R). Yesterday, Bruning and the ESRB jointly launched a public service announcement which will air on local radio and TV. The campaign is designed to raise parental awareness of game ratings as parents begin their holiday shopping. Bruning, no doubt, is also expecting that the ads will raise parental awareness of Bruning.

In the spot, the A.G. is seen playing Xbox 360 game with his children. The game isn't shown, but we can safely assume it isn't GTA IV or Left 4 Dead. Bruning offers a comment in the accompanying press release:

Parents should be involved and take an active role in choosing games for their kids. The ESRB ratings are an effective tool every parent can use to pick video games that are age-appropriate and family-friendly.  I use them when I buy games for my children.  I hope Nebraskans will too.

GP: In addition to Bruning and others who signed onto the ESRB campaign recently, more than a dozen elected officials, primarily governors and A.G.s, are already on board.

As GamePolitics has pointed out before, the ESRB PSAs are a win-win for the game industry as well as for the political figures involved. The ESRB proactively gets its message out to parents. The political figures in turn are able  to promote an image of helpfulness and concern. Production costs are on the game industry's dime, and, because they are public service announcements, radio and TV stations run the ads for free.

From a strategic perspective, this campaign has been little short of brilliant. Whoever thought of it deserves a raise.

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Best decade for video games?:

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MaskedPixelantehttp://www.newsarama.com/23947-axel-alonso-says-x-men-will-have-new-world-post-secret-wars.html Marvel gives 20th Century Fox the finger, takes their ball and segregates the mutant population in their own universe. According to rumors at least.03/27/2015 - 10:21pm
Papa MidnightSure thing!03/27/2015 - 9:00pm
Andrew EisenPM - Thanks, I've updated the story.03/27/2015 - 8:59pm
Papa Midnighthttp://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2015/03/13-year-old-minecraft-player-confesses-to-swatting-police-say/03/27/2015 - 8:38pm
Andrew EisenThat would mean either Nintendo's next home console will be out by next year or the next Zelda game is suffering a two year delay. Both extraordinarily unlikely.03/27/2015 - 8:34pm
Matthew Wilsonsome people are thinking we might have a Twilight Princess situation on our hands, what do you guys think?03/27/2015 - 8:01pm
MechaCrashMiyamoto once said "a delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever." While this can be taken to excess, it is good that Nintendo remembers it.03/27/2015 - 7:44pm
MaskedPixelanteYay for it not being a buggy mess like AC Unity. Boo that it got delayed til November 2016.03/27/2015 - 7:07pm
Andrew EisenAgreed. Considering we've seen nothing of the game (and those who did see it last E3, said it was super duper early) I would be quite surprised to see it this year.03/27/2015 - 5:28pm
Matthew WilsonI am sure star fox is 2016 too.03/27/2015 - 5:14pm
ZippyDSMleeThe primary reasons I would get a Nintendo system is Zelda and Metroid, Metroid prime collection was beyond words awesome even if 3 was the weakest one. I played TWP on the emulator I have Skyward Sword but like TWP I been putting it off…. LOL03/27/2015 - 5:14pm
Daniel LewisI actually thought star fox would be the game to be delayed,hopefully that isn't as well!03/27/2015 - 5:13pm
Daniel Lewiswoah post shared at the same time matthew,you just beat me!03/27/2015 - 5:11pm
Daniel LewisZelda wii u delayed until 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=67&v=C6Pzdl1wdUM03/27/2015 - 5:10pm
Matthew Wilsonhttps://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=866919960035802&permPage=1 Who did not see this coming?03/27/2015 - 5:09pm
ZippyDSMleehttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/27/kleiner-perkins-verdict_n_6958164.html03/27/2015 - 5:07pm
MechaTama31I am always mysitfied when Cowboy Bebop is held up as an example of a good dub. Is it because it merely makes you want to cover your ears, rather than want to jam red-hot pokers into them?03/27/2015 - 5:04pm
james_fudgeyeah we covered that03/27/2015 - 4:41pm
Matthew Wilsonhttp://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2015/03/13-year-old-minecraft-player-confesses-to-swatting-police-say/ not surprised.03/27/2015 - 3:51pm
Matthew WilsonI know most of my friends first saw robotech when it was on Toonami in the mid 90s, but it is possible that a fan who watched it in the 80s are in a position to do it.03/27/2015 - 1:04pm
 

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