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ESRB moves to streamline online game ratings

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), the organization that assigns computer and video game content ratings, today announced that it was overhauling its rating system for games that are exclusively sold through console and handheld storefronts such as Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE Arcade, Sony’s PlayStation Store, or Nintendo’s Wii and DSi Shop.

The number of downloadable games has sky-rocketed in the last few years, and the ESRB hopes the new system will help it keep pace with the increase without compromising the consistency and quality of its ratings.

Instead of a review of by a minimum of three independent raters, publishers of downloadable games will now be asked to complete a questionnaire designed to assess content across a number of different categories such as violence, sexual content and language. The responses to the questionnaire will determine the rating that’s assigned to a game, as well as the content descriptors – cartoon violence, partial nudity, suggestive themes, etc. – which triggered the rating.

“The ESRB rating process that has been in use since 1994 was devised before the explosion in the number of digitally delivered games and devices on which to play them,” said ESRB president Patricia Vance. “This new rating process considers the very same elements weighed by our raters. The biggest difference is in our ability to scale this system as necessary while keeping our services affordable and accessible.”

Scalability is key, as the ESRB keeps a wary eye on other fast-growing categories of downloadable games such as those accessible through app stores or social networks. These so-called “casual games” live outside the current rating system and are subject only to the largely unpublished review criteria of the game distributors such as Apple, Google, and Facebook. As the content of these games becomes more sophisticated, it makes sense to have a rating system that applies across all platforms.

Even though it will use the questionnaire responses for the initial rating, the ESRB is not leaving everything in the hands of the publishers. Games rated under this new process will be tested by ESRB staff shortly after they are made publicly available. Any rating errors will be promptly corrected and responses that are found to be intentionally misleading could result in the game being removed from online stores.



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