The ESRB: Better Than Costly Legislation

Geek Culture


Image by nancy.kao via Flickr

Last week I did a bit of editorializing; I wrote briefly about the ESRB’s M rating and the games to which said rating is often attached. In doing so I referenced an Ars Technica post concerning a recently introduced bill in the state of Utah that sought to criminalize the selling of M-rated titles to underage consumers. Shortly after my story was posted, this bill was passed by the Utah state senate via a staggering margin of 25-4.

While I imagine we all agree that keeping objectionable content out of the hands of impressionable youths is a valid concern, this bill seemingly goes out of its way to be both ineffective and downright counterproductive to the task at hand. The newly adopted H.B. 353, which punishes retailers with fines should they be found guilty of selling Mature-rated content to minors, seemingly provides the most ludicrous of outs imaginable. The final, amended language of the bill is such that it actually discourages game retailers from posting information concerning and advertising an adherence to the ESRB rating system.

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Now that this bill has become the letter of the law in the state of Utah, it opens retailers up to fines, but only if it can be proven that "deceptive trade practices" took place (i.e.: if the store in question claims that it observes the currently in-place ratings system and its inherent age restrictions.) ESRB president Patricia Vance points this out in an open letter stating:

While the intent of this legislation would be to hold retailers accountable for compliance with their stated policies—presumably in that negligible 6 percent of instances where they fail to comply—the unfortunate reality is that it would introduce a liability that will likely force many retailers to seriously consider abandoning their voluntary policies and ratings education programs, undoing years of progress made on behalf of parents and their children.

While there are a number of odd caveats within this new law – sending an offending employee through a training system also gives the retailer a free pass – clearly, making adherence to the current rating system a liability makes an obviously toothless piece of legislation legitimately damaging. So what, then, is the solution to the problem at hand?

Obviously, it is the responsibility of parents (and not our elected officials) to insure that our children have access to only age-appropriate gaming. And, as there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel, familiarizing ourselves with the already in-place ESRB rating system is the easiest manner in which to accomplish this. Yet even as their ability to self-regulate the industry is seemingly being called into question at every turn, the Entertainment Software Rating Board continues to provide tools to help educate and enlighten.

An ESRB representative was kind enough to point me toward a pair of utilities that can actually help parents look up detailed information on an individual game’s rating on the fly. The first is, not surprisingly, the ESRB’s mobile web site. With this, you can check out a title’s rating and content descriptors (which clue you in on whether the rating was influenced by gore, violence, or sexual content) through your portable, web-enabled device du jour. The second is this Rating Search Widget, which you can download to your desktop or embed in the site of your choosing.

This is a simpler, more elegant solution as compared to, oh, let’s say ridiculously expensive and ultimately impotent legislation.

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