Washington Post technology columnist Mike Musgrove reminds us in his column today that the video game industry's voluntary ratings system -- the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) -- continues to come under fire in Washington and in the states. Musgrove notes that:
"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."
This is nothing new, of course. I have written extensively about the politics of video game regulation and discussed how the video game ratings system has been criticized for a number of supposed shortcomings. Most recently, I wrote about Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Joe Lieberman's (D-CT) "Family Entertainment Protection Act" (FEPA, S. 2126), which would create a federal enforcement regime for video games sales and require ongoing regulatory scrutiny of industry ratings and practices. (Note: There was also a House version of the bill).
What critics like Brownback, McCollum, Clinton and Lieberman consistently forget, or perhaps intentionally ignore, is that all media ratings and labeling systems are fundamentally subjective exercises. They are based on value judgments made by humans who are being asked to evaluate artistic expression and assign labels to it that provide us with some rough proxies about what's in the title or what age group should (or should not) be consuming it. There will always be "flaws" in such a system because we humans all have different sets of values. Consequently, there will always be critics who argue that they can devise a better system.
But what would a "better system" look like for video games? Honestly, as someone who is both an avid video gamer and a parent of two kids, I just don't understand what more the critics want. The video game industry's ESRB labeling system is highly nuanced and does the best job of any major ratings system of providing parents and all consumers with very detailed information about what they can expect to see and hear in the games before they bring them home. The ESRB ratings system includes seven major age-based designations and over 30 different content descriptors that give consumers highly detailed information about games. These ratings and content descriptors are affixed to every title produced by major game developers for retail sale today. Generally speaking, the only games that do not carry ESRB ratings today are those developed by web amateurs that are freely traded or downloaded via the Internet.
Thus, by simply glancing at the back of each game box, parents and consumers can quickly gauge the appropriateness of the title for their children. If parents want to do additional research in advance of a purchase, the ESRB's website allows parents to type in the name of any game and retrieve its rating and various content descriptors. If you want independent verification of the ratings or feedback from other users and parents, you can go to the wonderful Common Sense Media website for comprehensive reviews. Likewise, Metacritic.com offers a one-stop clearinghouse of reviews about video games from dozens of websites across the globe. Or even just check out the countless user ratings for most games that can be found on Amazon.com!
Still, some critics apparently think they can do it better and have suggested a role for government in terms of rating video game content. How? Well, they're a little short on details, but I suppose they will probably ask the FCC or FTC to do it or to oversee some independently appointed body that will be tasked with doing so.
Either way, those approaches would raise some serious First Amendment concerns and would likely be challenged and struck down in court. That's especially the case because we know that government regulators would not be able to resist the urge to censor if the ratings system was nationalized.
But here's a more practical question: How long do you think it would take for the government to assign ratings so that game developers can get those games out the door and on store shelves? Can you name any government regulatory process that gets the job done quickly? Can you imagine what a circus the whole process would become once various activists groups started petitioning the government to rate games in the ways they desired, or ban them altogether? (Just look at what a fiasco the broadcast indecency complaint process has become in recent years).
Some might argue that the government could force the industry to be more "accountable" and "transparent," but what exactly does that mean? For example, should the industry be forced to reveal the names and background of all the game screeners? Their identities are currently kept confidential to ensure they can be independent, and that's the way it should be. Can you imagine how some of them might be harassed (by both game developers and game critics) if they were forced to divulge their identities?
Or I suppose government could establish some sort of "blue-ribbon" task force made of academic experts, media critics, child psychologists, and so on. But how would that work? Would a game not be allowed to go to market without their approval? How long would it take to get that approval? And would the panel really be independent of government influence? Even if their role was more informal and merely advisory in nature, what would government officials do if they rated a game as "adult-oriented." Would lawmakers take that as a cue to ban it altogether? Finally, I think it's worth mentioning that there is currently nothing stopping someone from voluntarily bringing together such a group of independent experts right now to provide alternative guidelines. Why must the government do it?
Again, we've got a pretty good system today. The industry has created a comprehensive ratings and labeling system that offers parents and consumers extensive information about game content. And self-regulation need not be perfect to be superior to government controls. The ESRB system is constantly being tweaked and improved and it certainly represents a better way of addressing this issue than would a convoluted and likely unconstitutional federal regulatory regime.