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Congressman proposes bill to make ESRB ratings legally binding

Congressman proposes bill to make ESRB ratings legally binding

Thu 17 Jan 2013 8:20am GMT / 3:20am EST / 12:20am PST
Legal

Rep. Jim Matheson wants US system to mirror Europe's

A U.S. congressman has proposed a bill which will ratify the country's ESRB ratings system into law, making age ratings compulsory on boxes and the sale of adult games to minors illegal.

Representative Jim Matheson has tabled H.R. 287 partly in response to the recent public shooting tragedies in America, which has reignited debates on gun ownership and regulation as well as prompting President Obama to call for research into the effects of violent gaming on young minds.

The bill, listed as inteding "to require ratings label on video games and to prohibit the sales and rentals of adult-rated video games to minors," is in its earliest stages, having been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce after its proposal.

Should the bill pass, the US will likely introduce a similar system to that of the legally enforced, Europe-wide PEGI system, which took over from the BBFC's rating system last year, becoming law in July. Australia also passed ratings laws last year, finally introducing a "R18 rating to allow the sale of mature games.

For a more in depth assessment of the impact of the PEGI ruling, and the thinking behind it, hear UKIE CEO and consultant Andy Robertson discussing the move in the GamesIndustry International podcast from July, 2012.

26 Comments

James Prendergast
Research Chemist

735 432 0.6
Maybe I missed it but shouldn't this have some clarification that the BBFC was only the UK rating system?

Should the bill pass, the US will likely introduce a similar system to that of the legally enforced, Europe-wide PEGI system, which took over from the BBFC's rating system last year, becoming law in July.

As it stands, it reads like the BBFC was the rating system "Europe-wide".

Posted:A year ago

#1

John Bye
Senior Game Designer

480 451 0.9
If the ESA has any sense it will support this measure. There's no good reason I can think of not to legally enforce the ratings system, as is done in many other countries around the world, including the UK, and it should head off a lot of criticism of the games industry as it ensures parents have the final say on what their kids can and can't play. Trying to fight this measure now would be flying in the face of public opinion for no good reason.

Posted:A year ago

#2

Bruce Everiss
Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
Good and sensible move.
I have stood in USA game stores watching parents coming in and buying 18+ games for their much younger kids, who are in tow demanding that it be bought.
Making this illegal will help protect our industry.

Posted:A year ago

#3
All for it!

Posted:A year ago

#4

Alex Bunch
Proof Reader

94 106 1.1
If this became law it wouldn't change that. As long as the parent is still handing over the money nothing would change.

Posted:A year ago

#5

Joshua Rose
Executive Producer / Lead Designer

191 81 0.4
There is only one way I can support this, and that's if the ESRB reduces the cost and processing time to obtain a rating.

I've never dealt with the ESRB in terms of getting a product rated, but from what I've heard, it can get quite expensive. How would this help with indie game developers? Somebody starting out in their basement probably doesn't have a thousand bucks to obtain a rating from the ESRB.

Mandating that a private entity be required to rate your product (and accumulate a sum of money for said services) is illegal in the United States. You can not force a company to HAVE to pay another private company for the use of their services in order to do business. So unless the ESRB plans to reduce the pricing, I am against this.

Posted:A year ago

#6

Bruce Everiss
Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
@Alex Bunch

In the UK it is a very serious offence for an adult to buy alcohol for someone under 18. Quite rightly.

Posted:A year ago

#7

Christopher McCraken
CEO/Production Director

110 251 2.3
Popular Comment
AAAAAAAaaaand here we go. This is why you don't meet with advisory boards. This is why you don't admit to doing anything wrong when you have done nothing wrong. This is why you stick to your guns in a fight against the very people who seek to sanitize your creative works according to nebulous and often arbitrary standards.

The ESRB, In a nutshell is expensive first off. Second off, it is in no way an unbiased, and fair ratings board. They are the MPAA for games. Don't believe me?

Head over to the ESRB Search Page. Look up the word "Bible", or "Jesus" or "Christian", or anything related to judeo christian religion, in terms of games released. You will see each and every one of them are rated "E" for everyone. (This also includes games/titles based on The Koran)

Now, let's see here. Let's search for:

Minecraft. E (10 and Over) for "Fantasy Violence"
Snoopy Flying Ace. E (10 and over) "Cartoon Violence"
Puzzle Pirates. (T Teen) "Use of Alcohol" (because they used the word "Drinking game" for one of the parlor games.)
Braid. (Everyone 10) Mild Cartoon Violence.
Every single Magic: The Gathering *card* game gets a T. (Fantasy Violence)

And by all means, look up your favorite titles. See how they rate. =)

Religious violence, drinking, madness, rape, murder, and genocide = gets a free pass for children.
Anything else gets rated with a ridiculously biased system.

The MPAA rates movies in a very similar fashion. Watch "This film is not yet rated" to see what I mean.

So, now we're faced with a Congress that wants to legally bind publishers to this? Seriously? I mean, aside from the fact it will probably fail on First Amendment Grounds, the mere notion that such a system could be enforced on indies in the first place is laughable.

Allow me to counter propose this: seeing as there are legislators who want to force women to view pictures of dead fetuses before they get a legal abortion, how about we simply make parents sign something before they purchase a game? We could show them pictures of shot up schools before they're allowed to buy Gears of War. I know, I know...ranting. But this really irks me.

There are better ways of dealing with this issue. Sadly, as I predicted....our government wants to legislate themselves out of it, rather than deal with the real issues at hand.

Posted:A year ago

#8

Chris Nash
QA Engineer

47 23 0.5
Ah, this debate again. Both sides have been going round in circles for the past fifteen years or so. The most vocal commentators claim that "Violent video games cause kids to shoot up their schools!", propose regulation a la PEGI/BBFC, then get a politician to sponsor a bill. The bill then gets shot down due to 1st amendment protections, with an equal amount of vocal commentators decrying the pro-regulation lobby for wanting to censor everyone. Everything dies down for a year or two, then another tragic incident like Sandy Hook happens and the whole thing starts all over again. I don't see how the USA can have it both ways.

Personally I'm in favour of regulation via the ESRB. The only way, in the short term, to prevent violent games from getting into the hands of children (which is the goal of these campaigners) is to make ESRB legally binding. The long term method involves educating parents; teaching them that they should exercise more control over the games their children play. Unfortunately, neither option is likely to happen any time soon.

Posted:A year ago

#9

Omaha Sternberg
Editor / Co-Founder

13 15 1.2
"If the ESA has any sense it will support this measure. There's no good reason I can think of not to legally enforce the ratings system, as is done in many other countries around the world, including the UK, and it should head off a lot of criticism of the games industry as it ensures parents have the final say on what their kids can and can't play. Trying to fight this measure now would be flying in the face of public opinion for no good reason."

In America there is EVERY good reason to fight this measure. The laws of this country are created and passed by representatives of the people, and changed and monitored in the same way. By passing this measure, we the people place into the hands of a non-democratic organization that is NOT beholden to the people the ability to create and manage the ratings which are then punishable by law.

The ESRB system is a VOLUNTARY system that has worked just fine, thank you very much, in this country for years. The big problem with violent video games getting into the hands of underage players is not from the game retailers (who have the lowest problem with it) but the parents themselves. As a parent, I can't tell you how many times I've watched and talked with other parents who seem to think it's okay to buy and give their 10-16 yr old M rated games because they're "action" games or "war" games or "fighting" games and their boys will enjoy it (never girls, I note). The problem is with the parents willingly doing this.

If the government wants to pass a law to enforce a ratings system, then they can create a committee that manages the system and is beholden to the people (i.e. Congress, for what that's worth these days) it will punish who violate it. But I for one will not support any measure that will punish me for violating rules created by a private organization that I have no legal claim over.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Omaha Sternberg on 17th January 2013 5:49pm

Posted:A year ago

#10

Christopher McCraken
CEO/Production Director

110 251 2.3
In America there is EVERY good reason to fight this measure.
You bet there is.

The problem with the ESRB is the same as it is with the MPAA, they use secretive, behind the scenes and non public methodology to "rate" games. They are a private organization. The indie film and television folks have just gotten out from under the thumb of the MPAA and Standards and Practices due to the advent of cheap, easy to push online streaming and video. Comics had the same issue with the CCA. These organizations basically create distribution monopolies for a select few. (read: those with the money to pay for the rating, etc) As distribution became easier and cheaper, these same "helpful" organizations began attacking those who worked outside their walled gardens. What's being proposed now, is to put game publishers and developers under the same kind of thumb.

It's about as knee jerk, jackbooted and ridiculous as you can get. This bill needs to be stopped dead in its tracks.

Posted:A year ago

#11

Chris Nash
QA Engineer

47 23 0.5
So you're saying that the problem is that the industry would then be beholden to the ESRB, which is both not under public oversight (Ms. Sternberg) and corrupt/unfair in its practices (Mr. McCraken). That's fine; the ESRB may not be the ultimate answer. But the initiative behind it - to keep adult video games out of the hands of children - is sound. Yes, the true answer is to educate parents - but as I said before, this is unlikely to happen unless there's a massive change in American cultural values.

Posted:A year ago

#12

Omaha Sternberg
Editor / Co-Founder

13 15 1.2
"Yes, the true answer is to educate parents - but as I said before, this is unlikely to happen unless there's a massive change in American cultural values."

Which, in the end will occur over time. But changes like that can't be legislated.

I would also note that the law doesn't punish parents who put M rated games into the hands of children (and you won't have seen most bilsl at state or Fed level with that in there for a while now). With games more and more available through online download, I would think that the government would want to come down on parents RIAA-style. But parenting around here is sacred. Sigh.

Posted:A year ago

#13

Christopher McCraken
CEO/Production Director

110 251 2.3
@Chris Nash
Yes, the true answer is to educate parents - but as I said before, this is unlikely to happen unless there's a massive change in American cultural values.
This has nothing to do with cultural values. It has to do with the erosion of personal responsibility in this country. As a parent, the one thing I am sick and tired of hearing from parents of children who misbehave, break the law or commit atrocities on a small or massive scale: "I didn't know" or "We had no idea he/she was in trouble" "We had no idea they were doing this". My response to this is very very simple:

Why didn't you know?

No. Sorry. You want to legislate something? Here's one for you: start holding parents liable, equally, for the criminal or horrific acts committed by their children. Because I will tell you right now I monitored what my children did as they were growing up. I knew who they were with, I knew what games they played. When one of my kids was actively being truant for a month, I investigated the issue, got the help needed and solved the issue. There are some cities and towns "discovering" that holding parents criminally liable for chronically truant children has an amazing effect on attendance rates. Go figure.

A child under the age of 18 in the United States is, for all points and purposes is the ward of the parent. Want to solve this issue? Start holding parents accountable. In every one of these discussions, we wax philosophical about how parent's need to do more, but instead of actually facing that bitter truth...we instead go on to regulate some entity.

This, at the very core....is the issue. I am sick and tired of seeing parents (and yes, I have spoken to/witnessed some) who have aggressive, hyperactive children playing violent $70.00 games, yell at their kids to behave and all the while talk about how the government needs to do something. About violence, about media, about everything. Except their lazy parenting.

That something typically involves making their job easier. Easier to parent by proxy. Easier to keep sticking them in front of the PS3 or XBox. Well, sorry. I do not agree in the slightest. Want to regulate something? Want to raise the standard? Here's the standard we should raise: the standard of parenting.

But we don't see legislators proposing such measures, now do we? We won't either. It's easier to beat up game developers.

There's no scientific study that definitively shows a casual or causal relationship between violent video games and aggressive behavior in kids. But you know what definitive results we have from studies done on parents and kids?

Lazy parenting creates poor citizens.

Posted:A year ago

#14

Andrew Clayton
QA Weapons Tester

150 7 0.0
The ESRB is a terrible system that uses oversimplification to make ratings seem logical, but make no sense when comparing games based on content. I still cannot imagine a world where Oblivion and Duke Nukem Forever get the same ESRB rating and where San Andreas gets an AO because of the content that was cut from the game rather than the content that was included. Regardless of how you feel about legislating a ratings system, the ESRB is definitely not the one we want.

Posted:A year ago

#15

Bryan Robertson
Gameplay Programmer

86 210 2.4
I can't tell you how many times I've watched and talked with other parents who seem to think it's okay to buy and give their 10-16 yr old M rated games because they're "action" games or "war" games or "fighting" games and their boys will enjoy it (never girls, I note). The problem is with the parents willingly doing this.
To be fair, I think there is a valid argument that buying 16 year olds M rated games is OK.
In the UK you can leave school at 16, get married, join the army. You can drive a car at 17.

It seems ludicrous to say that someone is mature enough to do all of those life-changing things, but we need to keep games away from them.

Posted:A year ago

#16

Brian 'Psychochild' Green
MMO Developer

14 11 0.8
I can't see anything that could possibly go wrong with a mandatory ratings agency for creative work.

1956: Comics Code Authority tries to censor "Judgment Day"

Okay, maybe except something like that.

People who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, I guess. The CCA was a dark time for American comics, and that link shows a great example of someone using their position as a censor to promote their own hateful prejudices. In fact, there are plenty of examples of members of the CCA using their authority to harm competitors. You also have gems like Stan Lee being unable to publish a Spider-man comic commissioned by the U.S. government showing the harm of drug use because the CCA disallowed any portrayal of drug use.

Ever wonder why kids are more interested in Manga than U.S. comics? You can almost certainly blame the CCA for crippling our native industry. Ratings agencies might work well in other countries that aren't quite so cutthroat capitalist as the U.S., but here they would become a tool used to hinder competitors and stunt yet another creative medium.

Posted:A year ago

#17

Ashley Gutierrez
Animator

21 13 0.6
So...I'm curious.
Why are they bringing up violence in games again?
Particularly trying to enforce the ESRB rating, limited only to games?
It's absolutely silly to be scapegoating the media AGAIN for another shooting.
It's been proven again and again that media is not the cause.

If you take a look at the kind of firearms he was packing, one has to really wonder if it's smart to try and limit our media communication while leaving our firearm limitations the same.
He had a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, a 10mm Glock 20 SF handgun, 9mm SIG Sauer and a shotgun.
...Who needs these things as a 'hobby.'
Why are we allowing our own citizens to carry weapons that are so high-powered?
If he went in there with a knife, it's doubtful he would have killed very many people before he was promptly disarmed.

This person had mental problems, as do all the people who do these terrible things.
It's not something that can be pinpointed to any 'group' of people. The issue here is how easily they can get their hands on weapons that can hurt or kill a lot of people.

Posted:A year ago

#18

Kayleigh McDougall
Studying BA(Hons) Game Design and Production Management

21 1 0.0
It won't work.

Parents will still buy games for their kids that they shouldn't be playing. Just take a look into any UK shop that sells games during the busy time for game buying and you will see plenty of kids getting their hand on 18 rated games.

It seems like some parents only care about the price of the game, not the age rating, which was apparent when I was in buying stuff recently.

Posted:A year ago

#19

Ashley Gutierrez
Animator

21 13 0.6
As a parent, I can't tell you how many times I've watched and talked with other parents who seem to think it's okay to buy and give their 10-16 yr old M rated games because they're "action" games or "war" games or "fighting" games and their boys will enjoy it (never girls, I note). The problem is with the parents willingly doing this.
I played plenty of M-rated games since I was five. I'm a girl.
I've owned the 'dreaded' Mature-rated Mortal Kombat for the Genesis since I was seven.
Me and millions of other people have all done the same...and we have not gone on a killing spree.
Hell, I'm for more gun control! I'm a humanist/pacifist!
Violent media does not contribute to people picking up a ton of guns and shooting people.
If it did, the entire world would be in a state of chaos.
By passing this measure, we the people place into the hands of a non-democratic organization that is NOT beholden to the people the ability to create and manage the ratings which are then punishable by law.
So in other words, you want a biased and oftentimes closed-minded private company to raise your children instead of yourself?
You want THEM to tell you what is good and bad for your children?
Yeah, really sounds like freedom to me.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ashley Gutierrez on 17th January 2013 10:16pm

Posted:A year ago

#20

Paul Jace
Merchandiser

927 1,383 1.5
Didn't we have a little Supreme Court case due to something similiar to this a few years ago? And now they want to waste even more taxpayer dollars? How do these people get re-elected over and over again?

Posted:A year ago

#21

Benjamin Crause
Supervisor Central Support

82 38 0.5
Legally binding ESRB ratings will help how?
It will ensure that retailers will not sell directly certain rated games to minors. That is it. End of the track.
Kids will just keep getting the games online (both legal & illegal), ask parents to buy it or older siblings & friends.

More ratings or overly huge symbols (like in Europe) that ruin the game cover will not help. Parents who didn't care before won't care all of a sudden just because the logo is bigger.

The problem is and always will be the parents who are not taking necessary time with their children. Do parents need to understand the gaming world or the games their children play? Hell no. But how many parents sit down with their kid and at least watch it play a game for 15 minutes. No comments, just watch it. Don't judge your child. Talk with him why you like Game A more then Game B. Ask him why he likes both games. That is all you need to know in order to make further educated decisions on which games to allow your child to play.

Posted:A year ago

#22

John Bye
Senior Game Designer

480 451 0.9
Couple of things -

1) From the description in the article it sounds like this bill would only apply to retail games, which I'd assume are all rated by the ESRB already anyway? So it shouldn't have any impact on indie developers, but it does mean it's woefully inadequate in the face of growing digital sales. Companies like Apple often have their own arbitrary age rating systems which aren't comparable to retail game or movie ratings. A quick look on the app store shows that those rules aren't even enforced consistently, from the NRA's recent 4+ shooting range app to any number of action games that you'd expect to be rated 9+ or 12+ for "cartoon violence" but actually get a 4+. Age ratings are useless if they aren't applied consistently and fairly across devices.

2) Comparing the ESRB to the CCA is something of an exaggeration. The ESRB is a ratings board, whereas the CCA had no age ratings, it outright censored comics. At various points the CCA didn't allow any portrayal of "excessive" violence, sex, drugs, zombies, the word "horror" in the title, bad guys winning, or police or government corruption. It was patently ridiculous, destroyed vast swathes of the industry when it was introduced, and we're well rid of it. The ESRB might not be perfect, judging from the many comments above (living in the UK, the only experience I've had with them is submitting games I've worked on to them), but it's no CCA.

The way many retailers respond to an AO rating does result in some self-censorship, particularly when it comes to nudity and sexual content in games. But I suspect the same would be true even if there wasn't any ratings system at all, as middle America has a very prudish attitude to such things and likes to enforce its insecurities on everyone else.

There's definitely room for improvement in the US ratings system. Over here there's no distinction between what you'd call M and AO in the US, they're all 18 rated. Same for movies, we have no "R" rating, just an 18+. Which personally I think works much better. But somehow I can't imagine the ESA campaigning against this bill on the grounds that the rating system which they founded and support is actually not fit for purpose...

Posted:A year ago

#23

Roy Triesscheijn
Studying Game & Media Technology

1 0 0.0
Indeed, PEGI is used everywhere in Europe but it isn't legally enforced in all countries, most countries use it as an advisory (and games not rated by PEGI can be sold). The actual facts are, as often, only one wikipedia link away: " PEGI became the sole system for age classification of video games in the United Kingdom. As a result, games no longer have to be rated separately by the BBFC" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PEGI

Posted:A year ago

#24

Brian 'Psychochild' Green
MMO Developer

14 11 0.8
@John Bye Yes, the ESRB isn't exactly the CCA. Like any metaphor, it's imperfect but it can be instructive.

Both are a product of their times, and the CCA is much more "old fashioned" in its perspective. But, both deal with keeping "dangerous" creative media out of the hands of "impressionable" children. Keep in mind that even the CCA wasn't mandated by law, it was a voluntary step the comics industry set up under threat of legal regulation, so that damage was essentially self-inflicted. As I said above, problem is that once you put an industry-influenced, de facto (or de jure) mandatory regulatory body in place, particularly in a hyper-capitalist culture like the United States, you get people abusing that power for competitive gain. There are a number of documented examples where a member of the CCA worked to undermine a competitor.

The other thing to keep in mind is that no other creative industry in the U.S. has legal requirements like this. The CCA was not legally enforced. The MPAA that assigns movie ratings in the U.S. is not legally enforced. Books aren't regulated at all. What makes games special? Answer: nothing. And, since the U.S. courts have declared games to be free speech, it seems like a politician is, once again, singling out games to score political points.

I have nothing against the ESRB, in fact, I think it's a great tool for people who want to buy appropriate games for their children. But, trying to make it legally required is fraught with peril.

Posted:A year ago

#25

Max Kaftanati
President

10 4 0.4
If I was a kid and I was not allowed to play my GTA4 I would start punching kids in the jaw at my school.

Posted:A year ago

#26

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