On the Hill and in Court, a Shootout Over Ratings

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, October 26, 2006

Video game violence has long been a target for politicians, lawyers and parent groups concerned that the slashings and shootouts were having a negative effect on young gamers.

It was for that reason that the game industry established a ratings system of its own more than 10 years ago -- to give parents a tool for knowing what might be found in a game and to keep government regulators out of the game business.

Now it's the ratings system that's under scrutiny. Bills were introduced in Congress earlier this year calling for ratings to be taken away from an industry board and given to the Federal Trade Commission. This month, a Florida judge asked to view a game in his chambers so he could determine whether it was too violent.

There's little dispute over the need for a ratings system, but the way it's set up is attracting scrutiny.

Consider this odd but surprising fact: Games are rated by folks who don't actually play the things; they just view an hour-long videotape of an upcoming title's most graphic content. Game companies pick the content and submit the tapes themselves to the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

The board says there isn't enough time to play every game in full to come up with a rating. The average game today contains dozens of hours of action. If the board discovers content it objects to after a game is released, it has the power to re-rate a title and, effectively, get it pulled off the shelves.

This happened to Bethesda Softworks, a local game company, this year when the rating for one of its Xbox 360 games, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, was changed in an effort to keep it away from teens.

Earlier this year, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) was one of several lawmakers who introduced bills that would take the video game rating system away from the ESRB, but those bills never made it out of committee. Last week, at a summit on video games, youth and public policy, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) trashed the game industry's ratings system and called for a new, independent system. Brownback and McCollum agree that the current system -- because it's run by the game industry -- can't be trusted.

Some folks in the game industry, however, say the problem is not the system but the number of people who know about it.

John Smedley, president of Sony Online Entertainment Inc., said yesterday that, as a parent, he's a big believer in the ESRB -- but that he also wishes more people knew about it and used the ratings.

"I think we do a poor job as an industry in educating," he said. "It's a great system, but it's no good if people don't know about it. We're just not getting the word out there enough."

The ratings, which appear on stickers on the front of game packages, are EC for early childhood, E for everyone, E10+ for everyone over age 10, T for teenagers, M for mature players (age 17 and up) and AO for adults only.

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