Dabe Alan, ESRB

New ESRB system applies free instant ratings to content, includes warnings for shared personal info

New ESRB system applies free instant ratings to content, includes warnings for shared personal info

The video game industry is changing in many fundamental ways. Developers and designers from big-name publishers dropping out of the system to chase their indie dreams is moving closer to the rule instead of the exception. Many games are sold on a variety of digital distribution platforms for well under the $60 of retail titles. Budgets and teams are smaller, and choices are wider. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board had to evolve as well to keep up with the new reality.

The ESRB launched an initiative that allowed the publishers and developers of smaller games sold online to pay a smaller fee in order to have their rating assigned via an interactive questionnaire back in 2011, but that program has been expanded to become even more welcoming.

The process in now 100 percent digital; the ESRB does not require any paperwork to be filed or sent in. Once a rating has been assigned, the process does not need to be repeated for the game to be sold on different digital distribution platforms. If you’ve received a rating for Xbox Live and your game is now being sold on Steam, you do not need a new rating as long as new content has not been added to the game. The largest change to the program is the fact that getting your game rated is now free: Developers don’t need to pay a fee to be rated by the program. Ratings are also assigned instantly after the questionnaire is completed.

New disclosures will be included

While the ESRB provides gamers with content information about what they will see in the games they play, the new program will also include disclosure about the types of online interactions that take place inside games. There will now be an icon that states that a game “shares info,” including things like e-mail address, phone number, and credit card information. If the game or app you’re about to buy shows that icon, and you’re not comfortable sharing that information, don’t buy.

The “shares location” icon will be placed on games that can or do share the user’s physical location with other players, and the “users interact” icon will allow people to see what games allow “unfiltered, uncensored user-generated content.” If you don’t want your children being put in a situation where they can be called terrible names or shown crudely drawn images of penises, you’ll want to look for that icon.

Unfortunately, these new ratings aren’t mandatory, as the press release states that adopters of the ratings may choose not to display these icons. You can always check for them on the ratings board’s official site, however. It would be wonderful to see these signifiers on retail as well as digital games, and for their inclusion to be mandatory.

The new age of self-disclosure

This system relies on publishers and developers to be honest about the contents of their games while filling out the online form, but an ESRB representative stated that ratings applied using this process are just as accurate as those given out by the board itself.

“Our initial testing has shown that the automated form generates the same rating category as our raters in the vast majority of instances. In those cases where the form generated a different rating, most of the time that rating was more restrictive than the one our raters would have assigned,” the Penny Arcade Report was told. “That said, we will regularly be testing a number of ESRB-rated games – including the most popular ones and those that receive consumer complaints – to ensure that disclosure was complete and the rating assignment is appropriate.” Developers can also submit an appeal immediately if they feel the rating was inaccurate.

There are also tools to use if developers or publishers fudge the forms and try to sneak content through. “If ESRB discovers an instance where disclosure via the ratings form was incomplete or incorrect we will move to revise that rating immediately,” the ESRB said. “The developer is then required to notify all storefronts through which their game is available of the updated rating information. If necessary we may request that the storefront remove the game until the information can be corrected, which is typically something a developer would want to avoid. And we reserve the right to revoke rating services altogether for developers that habitually misuse the rating process.” That could prove to be an expensive, messy process.

These are all good moves in an increasingly online world, and let’s hope the new icons catch on. Unified ratings across all the storefronts, with the added disclosures, will be helpful for everyone.