Congress: Stop Playing Games

Video-game makers and retailers feel the heat on Capitol Hill about the ratings process and lax sales practices

Nearly a year after the Hot Coffee controversy—where a secret sex mini-game in Grand Theft Auto resulted in Federal investigation of the company that makes it—Congress is still steaming mad at video-game makers and retailers (see, 9/08/06 "Take-Two Is Off Its Game"). And in a June 14 House subcommittee hearing entitled Violent and Explicit Video Games: Informing Parents and Protecting Children, Representatives grilled industry members and criticized their inability to keep adult-themed games out of kids' hands.

Criticism at the hearing, which took place in the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, & Consumer Protection, focused primarily on two groups: the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which assigns parental guidance ratings to video games, for the way in which it assigns ratings; and retailers, who were accused of being too lax when it comes to protecting children from questionable content.


 . "Ratings need to be cleaner, clearer, and more universal…and retailers need to be more vigilant at judging the age of consumers, both online and offline," said Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) at the beginning of the hearing.

A representative from the Federal Trade Commission reported that while retailers were doing better compared to last year, a "mystery-shopper" study of random walk-ins to stores found that only 55% of national stores asked for a child's age after the child attempted to buy a "Mature" or M-rated game—which is supposedly only appropriate for those aged 17 or higher. Local and regional stores fared even worse, asking the child's age only 35% of the time.

Members of the subcommittee, however, reserved some of their most withering remarks for the ESRB. "As a parent and as a psychologist I don't find this to be an unbiased system," said Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.). "You seem to be setting the bar pretty low."

Earlier in the hearing, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) criticized the way the ratings board is set up. The publishers "pay you for a rating of their product, and [as members of the board of the ESRB] they are choosing…how you rate that game. And you don't see a problem with this?" Blackburn asked Patricia Vance, the president of the ESRB.


  Considering the vast amount of time it takes to complete a video game—it can take as many as 100 hours to finish the longest—the ESRB's small staff does a very quick job reviewing them. The 35 part-time reviewers, each of whom works roughly two to three hours every other week and has received just one day of training, do not actually play the games. Instead the raters, most of whom are parents living in New York City, watch a video of what the publisher has deemed the game's most potentially objectionable content. In addition to watching the submitted video, the raters evaluate the accuracy of an application in which the publisher has outlined the theme of the game and detailed all adult content and situations.

Including the time to view the video, it takes each rater from 15 minutes to over one hour to evaluate each title, according to Vance. Three raters examine each video. The fee for the rating process—paid for by the publisher—is $2,500 a title, according to one game publisher.

The ESRB argues that holding publishers responsible for their own video submissions is the most effective way to rate the games. It would be impossible to play every one of the 1,100 or so games released every year from start to finish, Vance contends, and the game makers know best what is in the games. Plus, the pool of people qualified as expert gamers wouldn't include enough parents, and it is their opinions that are the most relevant, she argues.


  ESRB critics still say that reviewing the games without playing them isn't sufficient. Kimberly Thompson, an associate professor of Risk Analysis and Decision Science at the Harvard School of Public Health at Harvard University who spoke at the hearing, conducted her own studies into hundreds of video games. She said that although she and her teammates played each title for just one hour, they often found the same type of content, like partial nudity, in two different games, yet the ESRB notes on the games were inconsistent.

One might include "partial nudity" as a content descriptor, and the other would not. If disparities can be found within only an hour of play, playing games should be a part of the process for the board, she said. "The ESRB's inability to play the games undermines their ability to independently rate the games, undermining the public's confidence in the ratings," Thompson said during the hearing.

Such a ratings process would be similar to the one used in Europe. As in the U.S., it is run by the gaming industry. In Europe, however, the raters play any game that has mature themes before a rating is assigned. Developers provide raters with special codes to make the game easier so they don't need to spend dozens of hours on each title. Also, publishers must fill out a lengthy questionnaire detailing the content of each game.

Vance's response to Thompson's research was that it would be impractical to have raters play games, given their varied lengths and complexity. Even up to 10 hours of play would "provide nothing," Vance emphasized at the hearing.


 Critics, including Thompson as well as members of the House subcommittee, argued also that the ESRB should be more transparent about how it assigns its ratings. Beyond the general methodology overview the ESRB provides on its Web site, the board does not have absolutes about what in-game content merits a certain descriptor. The ESRB does provide more specific guidelines for game publishers in a password-protected area of the site, not viewable by the public.

The lack of specificity makes it difficult for parents to fully understand the difference between, say a T-rated (for Teens) game and an M-rated (for 17+) one. After questioning Vance, Chairman Stearns said he was discouraged by the lack of transparency and that he thought an outside auditor or some sort of peer review would be beneficial to ESRB.

In an interview with, Vance emphatically defended the ESRB's choice not to disclose details of its ratings process, not to disclose the identities of the raters, and not to let observe the ratings process. "We don't want any negative [influence], or any kind of influence on [our rater's] judgment," he said. "We want them to feel free to come in, rate on their own terms, and not be scrutinized."

While the ESRB may prefer to continue their ratings without such scrutiny, members of Congress may soon look to apply more.

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