Last year the Entertainment Software Ratings Board reviewed approximately 1600 video games prior to their US release, painstakingly poring over video game footage before arriving at a final decision. Starting today, the board is passing a great deal of that responsibility on to computers.
Here's how the Entertainment Software Review Board's process generally works. A game's publisher submits a video to the ESRB containing the most violent, sexual, and amoral moments from the video game they seek a rating on. It's like a greatest hits video of death and debauchery. The ESRB watches that video and, based on what they see, assigns the appropriate rating to it.
While that process will currently remain the same for console releases, the ESRB is instituting a new process for the ever-growing list of downloadable titles for services like WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network.
Rather than having the publisher and developers compile a video, the game creators are required to fill out a lengthy questionnaire regarding their title's violent, sexual, and otherwise offensive content. According to The New York Times' Seth Schiesel the questionnaire is fairly extensive.
Offensive language, for instance, is broken down into six subcategories: minor profanities, epithets, scatological vulgarities, racial obscenities, sexual vulgarisms and a final category devoted to one particular three-letter word that refers to both a beast of burden and, colloquially, to a part of human anatomy.
A publisher fills out this document, submits it, and a computer processes it, assigning the correct rating to the game.
Of course the system relies on the publisher being truthful, but then so does the original system. The possibility of nondisclosure penalties generally keep game makers on the straight and narrow.
And should a dab of downloadable porn slip through the system's fingers, ESRB representatives will be playing the games after they are available to the public, so any hypothetical damage would be kept to a minimum.
Busy Job of Judging Video-Game Content to Be Ceded to Machines [The New York Times]