By Alyssa Rosenberg
I haven’t played video games in any sort of sustained way since I dabbled in Half Life and Counterstrike in high school. But when the Entertainment Software Rating Board announced that they’d be moving to a new system of determining ratings based on a questionnaire to keep up with the vast expansion of the gaming market, particularly games that are available through browsers, rather than through brick-and-mortar storefronts, I was intrigued. Rating entertainment is a notoriously tricky business, one that reveals weird political biases, generation gaps, and the unevenness of cultural norms and community standards. So I called Eliot Mizrachi, the director of communications at ESRB, to talk through how the new system works.
“What we’ve seen over the last few years is there’s been a significant increase in digitally delivered games,” he told me. “They tend to be more casual in nature, E-rated [for everyone], E 10-rated [for everyone ten or older], and lower-budget. They tend to be more like party games or puzzle games, or that sort of fare.” In other words, it’s not so much that there’s been a boom in overall gaming, but rather a boom in a kind of game that’s fairly easy to rate. Sure we can debate whether the Angry Birds are actually suicide bombers, but a questionnaire can quickly determine the fairly predictable level-to-level content and its impact on viewers.
The questionnaire, Mizrachi said, doesn’t represent any particular change in the Board’s rating priorities. Rather, it tracks depictions of things ranging from sex, to gambling, to alcohol use, and tries to elicit information about three dimensions of gaming: perspective, incentives, and level of control. In perspective, a game like Risk where the player moves whole divisions is determined to be less immersive than a war game where a player shoots enemy soldiers directly (I asked if the system considers that acting like a general sacrificing troops could be more desensitizing than playing as a soldier who feels the cost of war, but that’s not a nuance the system weighs). The questionnaire rates games where players are incentivized to avoid harming game elements as less intense than those where you’re rewarded for kills or behavior that would be anti-social if you did it in real life. And finally, the more control a player has within a game, the more intense (and thus more highly-rated) it’s assumed to be — static video you watch but can’t interact with is considered, within the system, to be the least intense. I’d be curious to see some analysis of how these categories interact with each other: if you have a high level of control, but are incentivized to do good things, like run a field hospital, or protect children within a game, does the level of control intensify the incentives score, pulling the overall rating down?
After ratings are assigned by the questionnaires and games hit stands (and not all games will have their ratings assigned solely based on questionnaires), ESRB testers will check the games within 48 hours to make sure the gamemakers have described their content honestly and the ratings match. If they’ve flagrantly lied about content or perspective, incentive, and control issues, ESRB can have the game pulled from sale, along with the game’s marketing materials. And there will be an appeals process available to gamemakers who disagree with the ratings their games are assigned: they’ll be able to ask a 3-5 member board of raters, who are distinct from testers, to go through the game and check for nuance and context that might lead to a different ratings assignment.
It’s not just the way the categories interact that strikes me as a challenge for ESRB — it’s the need to simultaneously make sure that, as Mizrachi puts it, “the ratings we’re assigning match the expectations of the cultural consumer,” while simultaneously avoiding ratings creep even as the expectations of those cultural consumers shift with the times. As singers push the boundaries on obscenity in pop, it’ll be interesting to see how standards adjust, not to mention how long the MPAA’s confused language triggers in the ratings last in their current forms. I don’t have an answer for how to reconcile those competing demands, much less how raters are supposed to represent a broad swath of consumer expectations. Given that games trigger concerns about issues as diverse about advertising to young kids, to conduct in war, to depictions of sex, it’s hard to imagine that a five-person panel can have developed and representative opinions on everything that might arise. It’s easy to slam ESRB and MPAA for bad ratings calls, but they’ve got an impossible task in trying to satisfy everybody.