“Scientific” Media Ratings & Labels: What Exactly Does That Mean?

by on July 22, 2008 · 19 comments

A few days ago I posted an open letter to New York Gov. David Patterson about a measure that recently passed through the New York legislature and was awaiting his signature. The bill proposes a new regulatory regime for video games that would include greater state-based oversight of video game labels and console controls as well as an advisory board to monitor the industry. Unfortunately—but quite unsurprisingly—Gov. Patterson signed the bill last night. And so I am certain that another legal battle will ensue regarding the constitutionality of the measure, and it will likely be struck down like every other measure on this front because it violates the First Amendment. Regardless, let’s talk a little more about what animates this specific legislative effort, because I think it is very important and foreshadows the heated debate to come over video games and all media in coming years.

The New York measure is notable in that, unlike most of the other state or local measures that had been stuck down in recent years that proposed penalties for the sale of games to youngsters which were labeled by the ESRB to be intended for an older audience, it simply proposed more “oversight” of the ratings process and parental control technologies by the state. Specifically, it mandated that all games be rated and that all consoles contain screening controls. The response to that proposal has generally been: “So what?” After all, all video games are rated already and all game consoles contain parental controls. The measure also mandated a 16-member oversight board to monitor the industry and this process. Again, that proposal was not regarded by many as a serious threat to the video games or free speech.

But I fear that many are missing the big picture here. The New York bill is actually far more important that many people suspect because of what it foreshadows: A day when politicians will claim that we can make rating systems more “scientific” by putting public health bureaucrats or university social scientists in charge of them. Indeed, last night on Bloomberg TV, this became the focus of a debate between me and Dr. Michael Rich, Director of the Center for Media and Child Health at the Harvard Medical School. After you watch the clip, I’ll have much more to say about this issue down below the fold.

As you heard in the clip, Dr. Rich favors a greater role for “science” and social scientists in the video game rating and labeling process. But let’s explore what that might mean in practice.

Over the past decade, I have heard many critics make the argument that media rating and labeling systems should be centralized in the hands of the government, some academic elites, a private (non-industry affiliated) rating organization, or some combination of all of the above. These critics often give lip service to private, voluntary rating systems but they then turn around and advocate that the entire process be run by people (usually closely resembling themselves!) who would somehow rate media according to more “scientific” criteria / variables.

The problem here is that media content is art, and art is fundamentally subjective. It’s not like there is some sort of Periodic Table of Media Elements that tells us what makes for good vs. bad art. Media ratings and labels, therefore, will always be based on 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.

Thus, even if a bunch of social scientists at Harvard were running the show, the media rating and content-labeling process will never be an exact science; there will always be something fundamentally subjective about it. Incidentally, exactly which “social scientists” would get a say in the process? Psychologists? Sociologists? Political scientists? Criminologists? Hey, what about art historians! I can almost see a joke in the making here: “How many Harvard social scientists does it take to rate a video game?”

But Dr. Rich and others like him would likely argue that some forms of media or art have unique influences on the development of the mind—especially the minds of children. They would argue, for example, that exposure to certain forms of violent media content will breed aggressive behavior in youth, or at least make them more desensitized and fearful of the world around them.

For the sake of brevity, I am not going to go into my typical long-winded discussion here about “media effects” vs. “catharsis effect.” Instead I will just reference the latest of my many essays on the topic (“Why hasn’t violent media turned us into a nation of killers?”) and I also recommend that you read my review of the excellent new book, Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do,” by Lawrence Kutner, PhD, and Cheryl K. Olson, ScD, cofounders and directors of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media. (As you will see when you read the book, apparently not everyone at Harvard agrees with Dr. Rich! That also makes one wonder how much actual consensus there would be in the scientific community about the ratings and labels they would be imposing on artistic expression.)

OK, so let’s just imagine that those social scientists who espouse “monkey see, monkey do” theories of media effects somehow get a say in rating and labeling video games. Think about what that would mean in practice. Imagine how long it would take a game like “Halo,” “Gears of War,” or “Grand Theft Auto” to get through that review process. And imagine what the warning label on the box would look like once they were done! They’d probably affix a 10-page memo to each game carton and then a poison (skull-and-crossbones) logo for good measure. Or perhaps the label would come in form of a Surgeon General’s warning about the product being hazardous to one’s (mental) health?

In the end, the whole system would become an unworkable farce if mandated by government. Nothing would be getting rated and to market in a timely way. Game developers would be in open revolt against it. And industry lawsuits would be flying.

More importantly, few people would likely use it. Many media critics seem to forget that there is trade-off between convenience and comprehensiveness in terms of rating and labeling systems. As Kutner and Olson note in their book: “The more complicated a system becomes, the less likely busy parents are to understand it and to actually use it.” We have to be careful not to upset this balance. In my opinion, the current ESRB game rating system pushes the labeling process just about as far as it can go on the comprehensiveness scale, but does so using easy-to-comprehend ratings (7 of them) and content descriptors (over 30 of them). When media critics and social scientists say they want to make the system even more “comprehensive” and “scientific,” therefore, I really have to wonder if they have thought through the practical implications of such a move. Exactly how many more ratings and labels are we talking about? Exactly how much more detailed could it be than the ESRB’s existing system, which already has 12 different content descriptors for violent content alone (from “cartoon violence” to “sexual violence” and everything in between).

Another point: The argument that government or “ratings by social scientists” would provide more objective ratings is also undermined by the grim reality of special-interest politics. Government officials or government-appointed commissions would be more susceptible to various interest group pressures as they were repeatedly lobbied to change ratings or restrict content based on widely varying objectives and values. Inevitably, as has been the case with the broadcast indecency complaint process in recent years, a handful of particularly vociferous groups could gain undue influence over content decisions. That possible outcome raises what the Supreme Court has referred to as the “heckler’s veto” problem since a vocal minority’s preferences could trump those of the public at large.

Now let me be perfectly clear about one thing: I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with folks like Dr. Rich and his colleagues devising some sort of “scientific” rating or labeling scheme for video games and other forms media content. But the fundamental question in this debate is: should such a system should be the law of the land?

In my book on Parental Controls and Online Child Protection, I spend a great deal of time in Chapter 2 talking about the importance of third-party ratings and pressure and I heap a lot of praise on the various independent, third-party content rating and labeling systems out there today. In particular, my wife and I absolute love Common Sense Media and rely on its ratings every week when we are consider what media to allow our kids to consume in our home. It’s a great system that is highly informative; and the feedback from average parents and kids on the site is very helpful too. Other great 3rd party rating and labeling services just for video games include: What They Play, Gamer Dad, and Children’s Technology Review, all of which provide detailed video game reviews and information about the specific types of content that kids will see or hear in a game. [Incidentally, the ESRB has a section on its webpage that highlights all these independent sites.]

So here’s the question for Dr. Rich and the folks in the social science community: Why not just create your own “shadow” ratings process or collaborate with these other organizations to serve a worthy “watchdog” role over the existing rating and labeling process? That’s the win-win solution here.

It would be a huge mistake to throw out the existing ESRB system. It is working very effectively and it is already widely recognized by the vast majority of parents. Surveys by Peter D. Hart Research Associates reveal that 89% of American parents of children who play video games are aware of the ESRB ratings and that 85% of them consult the ratings regularly when buying games for their families. That’s pretty impressive considering how young the ESRB rating system is.

Moreover, let’s not forget that every game console and computer system on the market today is geared to read the ESRB ratings metadata (digital tags) that are embedded in every game shipped to market. That’s how the parental controls are enabled. Should we toss all that work out the window and just start from scratch? I think that would be a huge mistake.

Again, there is nothing stopping Dr. Rich and his fellow social scientists from crafting their own system. In fact, I believe I speak for many parents when I say we would welcome it. But mandating it and asking that it serve as a replacement for the existing ratings and console controls is an completely different issue. It’s a non-starter in my opinion.

Now that the New York bill has passed, however, the door is open for this sort of proposal to see the light of day. If the measure is not struck down, watch to see who is appointed to the 16-member advisory committee and listen to hear which way they are going. I bet it ends up being something along the lines of what I have suggested above.

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