Video Games, Ratings & Transparency: A Response to Jerry Bonner

by on March 17, 2008 · 5 comments

Over at the popular gaming site, a gentleman who worked briefly for the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has posted a provocative article entitled, “How to Fix the Game Ratings System: An insider’s take on what’s wrong with the ESRB.” In the piece, Jerry Bonner, who worked at the ESRB for 6 months according to, argues that “Something desperately needs to happen [to reform the ESRB] because the alternative — a government mandated and controlled rating scheme — is a downright frightening concept.” He continues:

“let’s fix [the ESRB ratings process] before things really get out of hand and a new government-appointed ‘Secretary of Interactive Entertainment’ is making the decisions as to what we can and can’t play. I know I don’t want that. I know you don’t want that. And I know that the people at the ESRB don’t want that. Let’s all make damn sure it doesn’t happen, shall we?”

Well, I can certainly agree with Mr. Bonner that a “Secretary of Interactive Entertainment,” or any sort of extensive government regulation of video games, is a very frightening prospect. The problem is, the “solutions” he outlines in his essay could actual put us on that path.

Re-shuffling ratings & discarding labels

Consider his first recommendation:

the ESRB’s ratings system desperately needs to be updated.” .. “The ESRB should be flexible, ready to change quickly or move forward as fast as this rapidly evolving industry. They did adopt the E10+ rating in 2005 and hired six full-time raters this past spring. While these changes are nice, I believe they need to go a bit further.

Well, as he points out, the ESRB system has been updated occasionally, and it will almost certainly continue to evolve in the future as needed. But Mr. Bonner has two suggested changes that he says will immediately improve the system. First, he wants the “Adults Only” (“AO”) rating wiped out and the current ratings scale adjusted such that Mature (“M”) becomes the new AO:

My suggestion is this: Change the letter ratings to E(veryone), E(veryone)10+, T(een)13, T(een)16, and M(ature). AO goes the way of the dodo and Mature now becomes the top of the scale, recommending that players be 18 and older to purchase.

His rationale is that the Adults Only rating has become the equivalent of the death penalty for some games since they cannot be played on major consoles or sold in store due to voluntary commitments. In one sense, that is a fair point. How can adults who want to play adult-rated games play them? The answer, of course is: on a PC. But there will be increasing pressure on console makers to change that policy to accommodate adult-only households.

But wouldn’t the better approach here be to just lobby console makers for some flexibility in that regard? Why screw with the ratings system? Indeed, the change Mr. Bonner suggests will invite far more pressure by critics and lawmakers for oversight or direct regulation of games since they will make the old “ratings creep” argument and say that the industry has done little more than water-down the upper ratings designations in an attempt to make AO-rated games more accessible.

Moreover, whether any of us care to admit it, the fact that AO-rated games are currently kept off the major consoles and off the shelves at some major retailers (ex: Wal-Mart and Target) is probably the most important thing holding back a full-on legislative assault on video games. Still, I think Mr. Bonner makes a fair point about finding a way to accommodate AO games, but his solution would lead to undesirable results in the form of even more pressure from critics and politicians on game makers and the ESRB.

Mr. Bonner also says that, “My other strong suggestion is to do away with the static content descriptors (“cartoon violence,” etc.) and use a more free-form approach like the Motion Picture Association of America, which tailors its descriptors for specific movie content.” I could not disagree more. The more than 30 content descriptors that ESRB applies to games provide consumers (especially parents) with highly detailed information about the games they are buying or letting their kids play. By simply glancing at the back of each game container, parents can quickly gauge the appropriateness of each title for their children. How can that be a bad thing? The more information the better, I say.

Play It All?

Mr. Bonner’s second recommendation is that “raters play the games to completion and carefully log their findings throughout the playtest.” He argues:

What the general public may not know is that the ESRB’s current pool of full-time raters (six people: three men and three women) does not actually play the games that they rate. They just watch submitted videotapes or DVDs of someone else playing the game. Now, when the switch was made from the use of a large pool of part-time raters to the current group of full-timers, the ESRB did decide to have the full-time raters actually play games as well, but these were rarely games that we dealt with in the rating process. They were just “random” titles from the vast ESRB archive, culled for busywork. And the raters were only required to play the games for four hours, anyway. For some titles, this is more than enough; for others, it is woefully inadequate.

Let’s get serious. Games are not linear media like TV shows or movies. Gameplay is highly unique and multi-dimensional, and often there is no clear “end” to the game. Raters would have to spend days–perhaps weeks–trying to “finish” some titles. This just isn’t practical. But Mr. Bonner anticipates this response:

I’ve already heard the ESRB’s argument on this one: “That’ll take way too long and it will compromise our turn-around time.” My solution to that is simple: Hire more people. The ESRB is a relatively small organization with about 30 full-time employees. This can be bolstered a bit, and I’m sure the developers and publishers can wait an extra week or so for their ratings if they know that a better, more thorough job is being done.

Mr. Bonner is underestimating the challenge at hand here. The ESRB would have to hire a small army of new, full-time raters to play ALL games ALL the way through, whatever that means. Who’s going to pay for all that manpower? Answer: Gaming companies. And they aren’t going to be very happy about it. Many developers are already seriously pissed off about having their artistic endeavors rated at all. This would make them even more angry. More importantly, it would likely slow down a system that is fairly responsive right now. Are game developers or gamers themselves going to tolerate weeks of delay waiting for raters to play a game “all the way through”? I don’t think so.

Transparency: The Unintended Consequences

It’s nearly impossible to be against transparency, no matter what the context. The more visibility about a process, the better. So, in one sense, it’s easy to sympathize with another of Mr. Bonner’s recommendations: Make the ESRB less secretive. He says:

I never understood why the board was so secretive about their modus operandi and why we, as raters, couldn’t be known to the general public or ever speak to a reporter. I finally asked about this and was told that it was for our protection, to ‘save’ us from unscrupulous publishers or journalists who might offer us money for a favorable rating or some inside information. The idea of it sounded absurd to me — people going to those shady lengths over game ratings? Seemed a bit excessive. Realistically, there is nothing to hide at the ESRB. Everything was above board as far as I could tell and all the employees are well-adjusted adults who can handle themselves in complicated situations. But by acting in a secretive, mysterious way, the ESRB creates an appearance of impropriety. This serves no purpose. And if the day does come when the ESRB drops the curtain, then the general public would be in a position to offer its own ideas on improving the system as well.

But let’s think this through a bit because there are actually some very good reasons for the ESRB–or any official rating system for that matter–to not be perfectly open as Mr. Bonner suggests.

With private, independent rating and labeling systems, those assigning ratings or labels are intentionally isolated from lobbying or other interest group pressures. If greater “transparency” meant forcing raters to be exposed to endless special-interest lobbying or other pressures, one wonders if that would really produce a better system. It would more likely produce a system that bowed to those pressures when they became intense enough.

For example, if those assigning video game ratings weren’t anonymous, they might be harassed by both game developers (who want to make them more lax) and game critics (who want to make them more stringent). This does not mean the raters ignore public input. To the contrary, most private rating boards and labeling bodies poll the public and monitor what critics are saying to adjust their systems occasionally. But if the ESRB was forced to make their ratings process completely open to anyone who cared to provide input (including the public policymakers themselves), it would result in a circus-like atmosphere and little content would get rated in a timely manner.

Think about it. Imagine if the ESRB was required to put out a public notice before the next installment in the “Grand Theft Auto” series was about to be rated. The raters would assemble in a public place and “play the game all the way through” in front of whoever cared to show up. Then they were to vote on their rating for the game. Can you imagine? You’d have Jack Thompson screaming bloody murder (literally!) from one side of the aisle while the guys from Take-Two would be going nuts on the opposite side claiming their First Amendment rights were under fire. Pro-censorship groups like the Parents Television Council would simultaneously be cranking their e-mail complaint generation machines into overdrive and flooding the raters with online petitions telling the them to “think of the children” or else they were all going to hell. Not to be outdone, gamers would unite with a vengeance and start sending the raters all sorts of irate messages and pasting the raters’ images into online shooting gallery games, or worse. Again, it would be a complete circus. Meanwhile, nothing would get done in a timely way. The assignment of ratings would get back-logged, especially for controversial games that “deserve more consideration,” as critics would certainly demand.

Moreover, calling for more transparency in the ratings process actually leads us right back to the grim prospect of increased government oversight of the ratings process in ways Mr. Bonner has not considered. The Federal Trade Commission or Federal Communications Commission would likely be asked by Congress to “rate the raters” using some subjective socio-political scale. And you’d have the raters hauled in front of regulatory commissions and into congressional hearing rooms to “account for their actions.” Sen. Brownback and Sen. Clinton would engage in a heated war of words about who really loved our children more, and then they would both lambaste the raters for “not doing a better job” (i.e, for not censoring games).

So let’s be careful about calling for “transparency” without thinking through the consequences.

Ratings “Competition”

Mr. Bonner wraps up by suggesting that what the ESRB really needs is some competition in the ratings business:

Who is to say that some upstart entrepreneurs couldn’t contest the ESRB’s status, especially now? Who says that the ESRB has to be the only game in town? The threat alone of a competing ratings entity would force the ESRB to take a long, hard look at how they are doing things and, in turn, make the necessary changes to move forward. Some may say that a competing system would just confuse things further, that it could invite government regulation because politicians could claim that the industry no longer has the ability to field a single, dependable regulating body. But what I’m suggesting here is capitalism at its finest — the American Way, if you will. Compete or perish.

Well, I’m about as rabid of a capitalist as you will find and believe passionately in a “compete or perish” market system. But capitalism also depends on standards. Many businesses and business methods get built upon standards that bring certainty to the occasional chaos of the marketplace. And when it comes to official industry rating systems, standards make a great deal of sense. If you hope to build acceptance and awareness about a voluntary rating system, you need a certain amount of stability and scale. Everything needs to be rated according to a widely understood benchmark and then branded accordingly. That’s how you get people to use it–both the industry, who must affix the ratings to every game, and the public, who ultimately need consistent, reliable information.

Importantly, however, I am just talking about official industry rating systems here. There is no reason that other private systems cannot develop to supplement the official rating system. And I’m happy to report to Mr. Bonner that there is a lot of competition out there already in this regard. As I reported in my book on “Parental Controls & Online Child Protection,” a wonderful and growing diversity of independent game rating services exist today. Organizations such as Common Sense Media, What They Play, Gamer Dad, Children’s Technology Review and MediaWise “KidScore” provide detailed video game reviews and information about the specific types of content that kids will see or hear in a game. Parents can use information from those sites and services to verify ESRB game ratings independently, or just to get more details about what might be in the games they buy their kids.

But if Mr. Bonner seriously believes that an entirely different, competing rating system is going to develop from within the industry as an official alternative to the ESRB, I think he’s dreaming. Developers would never tolerate it. And, as he suggests, it would lead to more pressure from critics and regulators for a single government regulatory standard.

Final Thoughts

What critics consistently forget—or perhaps intentionally ignore—is that media rating and content-labeling efforts are not an exact science; they are fundamentally subjective exercises. Ratings are based on value judgments made by humans who all have somewhat different values. Those doing the rating are being asked to evaluate artistic expression and assign labels to it that provide the rest of us with some rough proxies about what is in that particular piece of art, or what age group should (or should not) be consuming it. In a sense, therefore, all rating systems will be inherently “flawed” since humans have different perspectives and values that they will use to label or classify content.

Much ink is spilled over how rating systems can be improved. Everyone seems to have their own ideas about what “the best” system would look like. But, at the end of the day, someone has to (1) create a standard and (2) enforce it as broadly as possible so that (3) the public accepts and uses it.

The ESRB has done that quite effectively in my opinion. In fact, in many ways, although it is the newest of all industry content rating and labeling schemes, the video game industry’s system is in many ways the most sophisticated, descriptive, and effective ratings system ever devised by any major media sector in America. Is it perfect? Of course not. Improvements can always be made, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the ESRB system (1) is highly descriptive, (2) rates virtually all game content sold today, and (3) is widely understood and used by game consumers and parents today.

We should not underestimate that accomplishment. And in seeking to refine or improve the system, we should be careful not to upset the current balance of things and open the door to excessive interference by pesky politicians and censorial-minded gaming critics.

UPDATE: There’s a very interesting discussion taking place over at about these issues.

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