Obama asks for clearer choices, bill enforces game ratings
The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) have been getting an unusual amount of political attention in the past few days. Following President Barack Obama’s policy proposals to end gun violence, ESRB game ratings are being scrutinized.
The White House plan introduced Wednesday to curb gun violence is asking the entertainment industry “to give parents tools and choices about the movies and programs their children watch and the games their children play.” In Congress, a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) is seeking to mandate and enforce the ESRB’s game ratings with the threat of a $5,000 fine.
The White House plan isn’t making a specific policy proposal, but it’s an understandable concept. As it stands, ESRB provides a few game ratings to parents: EC, E, E10+, T, M, and AO. Most gamers understand the letters stand for “early childhood,” “everyone,” “everyone ages 10 and up,” “teen,” “mature,” and “adult only,” respectively. But it’s likely not all parents are privy to that information.
In Europe, Pan European Game Information (PEGI) handle game ratings a bit more clearly. Instead of letters, PEGI use numbers to represent ages, and the game ratings are color-coded. The game ratings are also sometimes accompanied by descriptive icons. Here is a visual representation of the European game ratings:
Beyond an easier-to-understand game ratings system, it’s unclear what more Obama’s plan could demand from the industry. The ESRB already posts information about their game ratings on their official website, and games carried by major retailers use ESRB’s game ratings. Even GameStop provides a helpful page for parents on the company’s official website.
Rep. Matheson’s proposed bill is very clear on its goal to mandate game ratings and make it so mature-rated games can’t be sold to minors. Right now, game ratings are completely voluntary, just like ratings are for the movie industry. But that hasn’t stopped all major game companies from adopting ESRB’s game ratings, and all major game retailers enforce them.
On GameStop’s website, it says, “All GameStop and EB Games employees enforce our store policy with respect to games rated M (Mature) by the ESRB. We DO NOT sell, reserve, or offer Mature rated games to customers under 17 years of age. When a Mature game is scanned, an ESRB advisory appears on the register screen requiring employees to ask any under-age customer for a valid photo ID, unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.”
Gamers younger than 17 can vouch for the strictness of GameStop’s policy. Many GameStop employees attempt to explain what game ratings mean to parents, even after the parents agree to buy a mature-rated game for a son or daughter.
Since the game industry and retailers are so strict about enforcing ESRB’s game ratings, it may seem like Matheson’s bill is unnecessary. The counterargument is it can’t hurt, which would be true if it wasn’t for indie developers and constitutional concerns.
Indie developers tend to avoid getting their titles verified by the ESRB because it makes the long process of pushing out a game a little easier. But it’s possible to get ESRB ratings for free through an online form, so getting a rating shouldn’t be a huge hurdle for indie developers.
The bigger issue is the bill is likely unconstitutional. In Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed First Amendment protections for video games and struck down a California law that banned the sale of violent video games to minors. A bill giving the ESRB’s game ratings legal weight and blocking sales to minors is likely in violation of that ruling.
The policy proposals for game ratings follow what’s been a busy couple weeks for video game advocates. On Wednesday, Obama asked Congress to approve a $10 million Centers for Disease Control study that researches the causes of violence, including the potential effects of video games. On Jan. 11, Vice President Joe Biden and other White House officials met with game industry leaders to discuss possible links between video games and gun violence, which Gamebreaker covered in full detail here.
What do you guys think? Does making American game ratings clearer seem sensible? Should ESRB’s game ratings be required? Make sure to comment below.