Video Game Ratings Board Prepares For Downloadable Games, Apple

Shortly after games began to flood the channels of Apple’s iTunes I asked a developer friend of mine why the ESRB weren’t rating the games headed for the iPhone and iPad.

The answer? It would cost too much for developers and the Entertainment Software Ratings Board would drowned in the sheer volume.

Earlier this week the board took a giant step forward to fix both of those problems.

A new, less expensive, perhaps less detailed, reviewing system went live yesterday allowing developers to answer a set of eight multiple choice questions and submit a DVD along with $US500 to get a rating for their game with a turnaround as short as 24 hours.

What’s that mean for you? Potentially the expansion of the video game rating system to a whole slew of new sorts of games, like those that play on the iPhone, Android devices and Windows Phone 7.

While ESRB head Patricia Vance said that the ratings board has “contemplated” what it would take to take on rating the thousands of games that flood Apple’s iTunes store, she declined to say if that was in the works. But under this new system, she added, it would be possible.

“If you look at what we constructed here it’s scalable to address whatever volume you want and it’s low cost and it is very effective,” she said. “I think there is no question that mobile devices are a very important part of the pie.”

This system would also be applied to console download-only games, which already represent about 25 to 30 percent of the total ratings the ESRB hands out in a year, Vance said.

Under the old ratings system, which is still in place for traditional boxed copies of games, a developer needed to fill out a questionnaire and submit their answers along with a DVD to the ratings board. The filing fee is $US4500 and the turnaround about a week.

The new system uses a series of nested questions that were constructed to figure out the content of a video game and weight that content based on context. Vance said the process to develop the short, multiple choice questionnaire was lengthy, but the end result is a system that nearly automatically spits out ratings that match the old systems.

The new system doesn’t spend a lot of time looking at the game’s DVD of gameplay before its release. Instead it double checks that DVD later and occasionally does a spot check of the released game. Under both systems, the developer has to sign an agreement that holds them liable for any deception on their part and sets out enforcement guidelines in case a game’s rating needs to be changed or a developer mislead the board.

“We have the ability to enforce this very quickly,” Vance said.

I had a chance to look over the board’s new questionnaire. While it only includes eight questions, most of those questions lead to more detailed follow up questions depending on an answer. For instance, the questionnaire kicks off with basic context questions about the setting and the realism of the game. But then it digs into content, asking about depictions of violence, sexuality, gambling, drugs and bodily functions.

If you answer that the game has sex in it, you then need to explain how frequent it is, how long the scenes, and how obscured the sex.

Some of the questions are quite specific. For instance, the offensive language section has a developer checking off boxes for the sorts of profanities found in their game. Boxes include racial, sexual and scatological obscenities. The bodily functions question includes options like depictions of a flatulence cloud or whimsical depictions of feces in the form of a poo coil. The short questionnaire also includes video and picture help guides which spell out in detail the different options and show examples from already published games.

Vance said a key part of their testing for this new system was taking games that had already been rated under the old system and then putting them through the new, shorter system to see if the same rating came out.

“It was very spot on,” she said. “It kind of surprised us how well it was performing”

Personally, I would welcome a more robust, ESRB-backed rating system on games found on mobile devices. While iTunes titles do get some sort of ratings information, as a parent I don’t find them very useful. Universal ratings for games makes the most sense and under this cheaper, faster system, it seems like a no-brainer to me.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

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