Breaking The ESRB

Penny Arcade today doesn't mention Bungie or Halo, but it did mention Senator Brownback's Truth in Video Game Rating Act. 1Up posted a news story late last month, and GamePolitics did as well.

Aaron Ruby wrote a piece entitled Is The ESRB Broken at Next-Generation which at first glance might read like a plea to stop the juggernaut of this bill from steamrolling the organization, but is actually just an attempt to frame the debate in the same terms as the senator's bill.

Since the article solicited comments for a follow-up piece, I submitted the following:

I read with interest Aaron Ruby's opinion piece, "Is The ESRB Broken?".

It seems to me the criteria Mr. Ruby used to judge the job the ESRB is doing are not terribly relevant to the industry or to consumers, nor did he give any constructive suggestions for what kind of work an organization that would replace it could be doing.

From the article:

When was the last time you saw a prime-time commercial campaign or even a magazine or newspaper campaign aimed at educating the vast market the industry hopes to capture. Games are still viewed as a shadowy pastime in many cultures and it's a shame the in-dustry hasn't stepped forward with so much as a flashlight in hand. Neither the ESA or the ESRB websites offer an explanation of what videogames are, how they are new, the interesting ways they are being used or even a brief history of their origins.

When was the last time anyone saw an advertisement in mainstream media from the MPAA? Why doesn't their website define the word "movie" and give a history of the industry?

The last copy of EGM I read had a full-page, full-color ad from the ESRB explaining who they are and what they do and why, featuring art by Mike K. of Penny Arcade fame. I honestly don't believe anyone old enough to be a parent in this day and age needs to be told what a video game is. The legislature might, but that's a separate issue. In fact, if there's a failure at the ESRB, it's getting people to understand what they are already doing, rather than what they actually do.

The organization proudly boasts of its 30+ content descriptors. There are five kinds of 'blood' content alone, including 'mild animated blood,' 'animated blood,' 'blood,' 'mild blood,' and 'blood and gore,' and there are no fewer than seven kinds of 'violence' in general.

But the ratings system, as it stands, is surely a case of 'more is less.' What is the point of having a system that requires consumers to be fluent in so many subtle and often ar-bitrary distinctions?

The words "mild", "animated" and "gore" are not particularly difficult to understand, nor are they arbitrary. As game packaging affords space for more information to be imparted to consumers than a simple single-letter designation, it only makes sense to provide it. The MPAA uses various criteria when giving its ratings, but these are not generally exposed to the filmgoing public in newspaper advertisements or in theaters. If consumers have so little time to devote to the process of choosing video games for their children that they cannot be asked to read a dozen words, then no ratings system is going to be effective. The ESRB should not be criticized for doing its job more thoroughly than an organization that has not been seriously criticized in years.

As for the words themselves, the definitions should be fairly obvious. "Blood" implies blood is shown. "Animated" implies it is animated-- likely as the result of a wound caused by a weapon in a violent game. "Blood and gore" would indicate not just blood, but also portions or parts of bodies shown. Since so many games are violent, and parents have different ideas about what sort of images are appropriate, it is not useless for the ESRB to provide these distinctions. However, if parents want to ignore them and simply look for an "E" or a "T" instead of an "M" then the ESRB also provides this to them.

The ESRB is also misguided in its steadfast attempts to rate videogames just as if they were television or movies. Videogames are simply a different medium. The strategy of rating 'content,' for example, while it works creakingly for more traditional media is not sufficient for videogames. No matter how many content descriptors the ESRB comes up with, until they are able to give consumers a sense of things like the relative frequency or repetition of violence, whether violence is required in order to complete the game and whether violence is committed against the player, by the player or in non-interactive elements, the ratings system will always be lacking.

Video games are an audiovisual medium. They are more similar to films and television programs than they are to any other modern form of entertainment. Most parents are concerned with the images and sounds they contain, as well as the acts and behaviors they portray. As such, using a modified version of the film ratings system is not inappropriate.

In any case, after just complaining that the ESRB's system has too many descriptors, the next complaint is that there aren't enough. I think the author would find that the "relative frequency" of violence is already considered by the ESRB. A game which might be appropriate for teens but has one violent cutscene that shows blood will not be given the same rating or descriptors as a game that features multiple acts of violence.

Whether the player is the perpetrator, victim, or both of violence in the game is a descriptor I'm not sure I see much use of. I'm scarcely able to think of a game that is violent in which the player does not give as well as receive physical violence.

Presenting this kind of ludicrous level of detail in descriptors, while at the same time bemoaning complexity, seems to directly feed into the intent of the Brownback bill: to make the task set before the ESRB so impossible that it cannot be fulfilled, and thereby justify the formation of a mandatory federally-controlled body to replace it, not only for video games, but other "digital entertainment" content as well. While the author seems to want to avoid this fate, the characterizations in the piece itself seem to urge this.

I find it alarming that the ESRB does not bother to base its ratings on the entire experience of playing a game, instead relying far too much on submitted clips--not even complete gameplay run-throughs, mind you. Even if you think the idea is unnecessary or even absurd, there's no getting around that failing to do so lends an impression of incompleteness and an ad hoc quality to the system that invites skepti-cism. It's like rating movies based on story-boards.

People think the idea is absurd because it is. And the author once again has contradicted himself. First he suggests that video games are different than movies, and then he says he wants them reviewed just like movies are: by viewing them start to finish.

Someone needs to tell Mr. Ruby that there is no such thing as "start to finish" with games. While certain genres of role-playing games may have linear stories with few or no branches, many more do not. Some are designed to allow players to self-determine their own path through a staggering collection of content, spending hundreds of hours exploring. How can these games be played "start to finish"? Any conceivable path one player could take during that 100 hours could be done differently by another player, resulting in a different experience.

None of these even scratches the surface of the concerns raised by downloadable content, both official and unofficial. The article merely refers to the Hot Coffee episode as "nonsense". I am not sure whether he means it was nonsense to blame the ESRB for content that would not have been discovered through a "complete gameplay run-through" since it had been deliberately hidden, or that it is ridiculous that the ESRB did not find it. What occurred there was clear: Rockstar put content in the game that was not immediately visible, but that it could reasonably assume would eventually become accessible, and did not submit this content to the ESRB. Given the time from the game's release date til the Hot Coffee modificiations were made widely available, multiplied by the number of people working on the game, it might have been a long time indeed before the ESRB managed to stumble on the correct sequence of buttonpresses to access that content without information from Rockstar. No ESA member would wait so long to receive a rating.

What is even more non-sensical is to rate a game that allows user-created content according to the most explicit content which could possibly be inserted into the game: which means just about anything.

The ESRB's content-driven system also neglects to address what is becoming both the great boon and bane for videogames in society, namely what kind of skills players can acquire from different kinds of game. Consider Grand Theft Auto III and Full Spectrum Warrior, for example. Both games are rated 'M' for 'Mature.' 'Hot Coffee' nonsense aside, there are really no 'skills' related to carjacking, abusing sex workers and causing astonishing levels of property destruction that a player can plausibly said to acquire in the Rockstar opus that caused so many in the industry to turn on the studio.

Full Spectrum Warrior, however, received no such treatment, despite being built very closely from software commissioned by the military to teach squad-level tactical combat to soldiers. It is designed to teach players things like how to flush occupants out of multi-story buildings, stack fire, and set up kill zones.

I shudder to think what is being suggested here. Is Mr. Ruby saying that Full Spectrum Warrior should somehow receive a more lenient, more acceptable for children rating because at least it is helping train little soldiers, instead of just allowing players to decide for themselves what kind of character they want to play in the game-- one that commits certain despicable acts, or doesn't? So accepting orders to kill on command makes it all right-- especially if it teaches youths to do so efficiently?

This is the kind of value judgment that parents and consumers, not the ESRB, should be making. It is perhaps regrettable that it can only be done by experiencing the content for one's self firsthand, or perhaps reading a few hundred words of a review. Since Mr. Ruby doesn't even seem to have the patience for reading a half dozen words chosen from a list of thirty descriptors, how he expects the ESRB or any organization to convey the distinction he took two entire paragraphs to express clumsily in a way that will fit into his attention span, I can't imagine.

Meanwhile the average gamer is being let down. One of the stated missions of the ESRB is to "help ensure responsible online privacy practices for the interactive enter-tainment software industry." But the ESRB only issues privacy seals for websites. (Either that or it's one of the best kept secrets in gaming.) With the growing sophistication and deployment of data-mining and monitoring technology in videogames, and the ex-plosion of in-game advertising, it's nothing short of shocking that there is no industry-wide system of standards and practices that allows consumers to gain a reasonable understanding of their privacy expectations without digging through miles of legalese.

So in addition to personally playing the dozens or hundreds of hours in each released title, the ESRB should be on the cutting edge of privacy rights as well-- and explaining everything to people in short words so they can understand it all without reading anything?

The ESRB is being sent on a fool's errand. They are being set up to fail. Mr. Ruby said the task set to the ESRB is not Sisyphean. The task set for it by people who actually consume video games intelligently is not.

The task set to it by Senator Brownback and those who espouse the ideas presented in Mr. Ruby's article is, in actuality, a Sisyphean task. And it is meant to be so.