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.

Retailers are free to establish their own policies for enforcing the ratings, according to the ESRB.

Pat Vance, the head of the ratings board, says the group has conducted surveys showing that there is an 83 percent awareness of the game industry's ratings system among consumers. By comparison, the movie ratings system has about 90 percent awareness, she said.

Vance said the video game industry is a target largely because it still suffers from a perception that games are for kids, even though the age of today's average gamer is over 30. "I think a lot of people who propose this sort of legislation have never purchased a game or don't play them," she said.

Brownback has a Nintendo GameCube-playing 8-year-old, though the senator certainly doesn't play games. At best, he said, video games make people sedentary; at worst, he believes, violent video games may lead to violent behavior.

"I think the consumer really needs to know the impact of these things," he said. "I would like to see an entity that has independence from the video game industry, not dependent on them, and have some standardization."

The game industry could argue that its ratings system isn't terribly different from the movie industry's -- but Brownback said he also finds the movie industry's system to be "inadequate and suspect."

Not surprisingly, the game industry would rather not have the government get involved.

Jeff Brown, head of corporate communications at game publisher Electronic Arts, said Brownback has legitimate concerns. "We're very receptive to their input," he said, "but we don't think having government getting involved makes any more sense than it would for movies or television."

A lot of this falls on the heels of a controversial move by Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Ronald Friedman, who agreed this month to watch someone play Bully, the latest release by gamemaker Rockstar, to assess its content for violence.

I played it a few hours this week, and it seemed relatively harmless, especially compared with just about every other game Rockstar has put out. Bully is nowhere near as spectacularly violent as recent games such as the gang-oriented Saints Row -- which itself is a rip-off of Rockstar's most famous franchise, Grand Theft Auto.

Bully, with kids who beat one another down with baseball bats and slingshots on a regular basis, is about as offensive to me as an issue of Mad magazine.

But the Bully brouhaha isn't over yet: The National Institute on Media & Family has called for a boycott, and school districts are speaking out against the title, which was rated T, for teens, by ESRB.

Meanwhile, politicians and gamemakers are butting heads so frequently lately that there's a news site dedicated exclusively to the subject, the aptly named GamePolitics.com. For people who care about games, the site is becoming a must-read.

Fun fact: One of the main catalysts for the game ratings system was a game about vampires that featured actress Dana Plato of "Diff'rent Strokes" fame and was produced by former Washington Post music writer Tom Zito.

Alas, the game, called Night Trap, is occasionally remembered only on "worst games ever" lists these days.

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