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Video Games, Ratings, Parental Controls, & Public Policy: Where Do We Stand? . Adam Thierer [email protected] Progress & Freedom Foundation April 2008 Version 3.0. All materials in this presentation are available in this free PFF report….

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Video games ratings parental controls public policy where do we stand l.jpg

Video Games, Ratings, Parental Controls, & Public Policy: Where Do We Stand?

Adam Thierer

[email protected]

Progress & Freedom Foundation

April 2008

All materials in this presentation are available in this free pff report l.jpg

Version 3.0

All materials in this presentation are available in this free PFF report…

Outline l.jpg

  • Why care about ratings & parental controls?

  • Current state of ratings

  • Current state of parental control tools

  • Third-party rating efforts

  • Legal/ regulatory issues

  • Future controversies & issues

  • The forgotten role of informal household rules

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Why Care about Ratings & Parental Controls?

  • Recent video game and Internet legal cases suggest a major jurisprudential shift

  • Courts have:

    • (a) rejected most “harm to minors” theories

    • (b) employed the “less restrictive means” test

      = regulation must yield to private alternatives if they are available and effective (Q: but what is effective?)

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That means…

  • Courts have largely foreclosed government censorship of most media and placed responsibility over what enters the home squarely in the hands of parents

  • This is why parental control tools and methods are more important than ever before

  • But, future policy debates could hinge on continued effectiveness of ratings & parental controls

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What makes for a “good” rating system?

  • The purpose of a rating system is to:

    (1) convey information about a given media product to consumers (especially parents),

    (2) so that they are able to make an informed judgment about the wisdom of consuming that media, or allowing children to consume it.

  • In other words, a good rating system INFORMS and EMPOWERS

  • A rating system is NOT a tool to “clean up” or self-censor media

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The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB)

  • Established in 1994

  • Rates approximately 1,000 games per year

  • Virtually every game produced for retail sale is rated

  • 7 rating symbols + over 30 content descriptors

  • Both ratings and descriptors have evolved slightly over time

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ESRB Game Ratings

EARLY CHILDHOOD: Titles rated EC have content that may be suitable for ages 3 and older. Contains no material that parents would find inappropriate.

EVERYONE:Titles rated E have content that may be suitable for ages 6 and older. Titles in this category may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.

EVERYONE 10+: Titles rated E10+ have content that may be suitable for ages 10 and older. Titles in this category may contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language, and/or minimal suggestive themes.

TEEN: Titles rated T have content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language.

MATURE: Titles rated M have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, and/or strong language.

ADULTS ONLY:Titles rated AO have content that should only be played by persons 18 years and older. Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity.

RATING PENDING:Titles listed as RP have been submitted to the ESRB and are awaiting final rating. (This symbol appears only in advertising prior to a game’s release.)

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ESRB Content Descriptors

  • Alcohol Reference

  • Animated Blood

  • Blood

  • Blood and Gore

  • Cartoon Violence

  • Comic Mischief

  • Crude Humor

  • Drug Reference

  • Edutainment

  • Fantasy Violence

  • Informational

  • Intense Violence

  • Language

  • Lyrics

  • Mature Humor

  • Mild Violence

  • Nudity

  • Partial Nudity

  • Real Gambling

  • Sexual Themes

  • Sexual Violence

  • Simulated Gambling

  • Some Adult Assistance May Be Needed

  • Strong Language

  • Strong Lyrics

  • Strong Sexual Content

  • Suggestive Themes

  • Tobacco Reference

  • Use of Drugs

  • Use of Alcohol

  • Use of Tobacco

  • Violence

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Most Games are Rated “E” or “E 10+”


“E 10+”



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ESRB also…

  • operates an Advertising Review Council (ARC) that promotes and monitors advertising and marketing practices in the gaming industry.

    • “Principles for Responsible Advertising”

    • “Advertising Code of Conduct”

  • works with retailers to educate

    • “OK to Play” campaign

  • has an educational partnership with the Parent-Teacher Association to encourage and enable state and local PTAs to educate their community’s parents

  • produces educational PSAs with policy makers to build awareness about ESRB system

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Relative Strengths of the ESRB

  • Most comprehensive industry-led media rating & labeling system to date

  • “professional” game content is all being labeled

  • Focus on content descriptors versus ratings differentiates the ESRB; provides much more information to parents

  • A lot of parents are aware of it and use it

  • Of course, the price tag of games helps!

    • $40-$60 price tag means parents pay more attention

    • “power of the purse” more prevalent with games than other media content

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Challenges for ESRB system

  • #1 challenge = Retailer compliance

    • Constant need to train and retrain retail clerks to enforce system at point of sale

    • Many clerks are young themselves; friends of buyers

  • System often judged by unique outliers (ex: “Grand Theft Auto” and “Manhunt”)

    • Unfair; like judging all books by the Unibomber manifesto!

    • Most games are acceptable for young kids

  • Keeping game developers happy is hard!

    • The artists who create these games often don’t like having their art rated; creates tensions

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    ESRB Challenges (cont.)

    • Social science critiques

      • some psychologists or media critics allege …

        • Failure to account for supposed harm to cognitive development of minors

        • Ratings creep

    • Legal / regulatory challenges

      • Constant stream of state & federal legislation

        (discussed in concluding section on “Future Trends”)

      • Seemingly endless legal cycle

        • 10 major cases so far, all won by industry

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    Game Console Controls

    • All major gaming consoles (Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo) have embedded parental controls tools

      • can block by both ESRB and MPAA ratings (via metadata tags)

      • allow parents to enter the ESRB rating level that they believe is acceptable for their children. Once they do so, no game rated above that level can be played on the console

    • Even controls for massive, multiplayer online gaming

      • Ex: XBOX 360 can block chat, restrict via a “buddies list,” and block online purchases

      • Microsoft Vista offers similar gaming controls

    How the xbox 360 gets it right l.jpg
    How the Xbox 360 gets it right…

    • Importance of “out-of-the-box” parental controls experience

    • Bundled ESRB rating card+ clear manual

    • Online support/ manuals

    • Chat restrictions

    • Buying restrictions

    • Buddy lists can be easily monitored

    • “Family timer” now offered (limits game time)

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    Xbox 360 Parental Controls

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    Other consoles…

    • Nintendo (Wii) & Sony (PS3) not quite as sophisticated as the Xbox, but basic controls are included in both systems

      • Can filter by rating and block chat & purchases

    • Sony’s PS3 controls need some work

      • Strange “1-11” rating matrix; not explained well in manual

      • Manual & online site lacks details; little assistance

      • More difficult to set up out of the box

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    Third-Party Efforts:Rise of independent game rating & review services

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    • Common Sense Media

    • Gamer Dad

    • What They Play

    • Children’s Technology Review

    • + good user-generated reviews of video games on sites like and

    Benefit of independent rating review sites l.jpg
    Benefit of independent rating & review sites:

    • Most obviously, not industry affiliated

    • Wealth of divergent views; many from average parents (and sometimes even kids)

    • Creates equivalent of a shadow ratings process

      = a check / watchdog for the ESRB

      But.. none are as comprehensive as the ESRB; many games not considered by these sites; they focus mostly on popular titles

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    Concluding Thoughtsand a Look into the Future

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    Some thoughts about ratings and technical controls…

    • No rating system is perfect and no parental control tool is foolproof

    • Rating and content-labeling efforts are not an exact science; rating art is not like solving mathematical equations

    • But ratings and parental control tools need not be perfect to be preferable to government regulation

    • That is particularly true because of the First Amendment values at stake here

    • Moreover, private ratings and controls have many advantages over government regulation…

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    Future issues

    (1) renewed push for universal media ratings? or just…

    (2) Oversight of ESRB by Congress or non-profit / academic groups?

    (3) More FTC oversight of retailer enforcement?

    • FTC already conducts secret shopper surveys + report

      (4) Mandatory age verification for MMOGs & online activities?

      (5) Mandatory parental controls defaults (i.e, controls forced “ON” out of box, requiring parents to opt out of controls)

      (6) What happens when “AO” games hit consoles?

      (7) What about virtual reality games?

    • Star Trek’s “holo-deck” is coming to your living room!

    • Already seeing more tactile devices coming to market

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    Appendix: The forgotten role ofHousehold Media Rules

    Household media rules l.jpg
    Household Media Rules

    = Any non-technical method of controlling media consumption

    • A frequently overlooked part of the parental controls story

    • In many ways, household efforts represent the most important steps that most parents can take in dealing with potentially objectionable content or teaching their children how to be sensible, savvy media consumers, and…

    • To the extent that many households never take advantage of technical controls, it is likely because they rely instead on informal household media rules

    • In a nutshell… Parents are parenting!

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    Taxonomy of Household Media Rules

    1) “Where” Rules

    Pew survey: 74% of homes with teenagers have their computers in an “open family area”

    2) “When and How Much” Rules

    Pew survey: 59% of parents limit the amount of time their children can spend playing video games and 69 percent limit how much time their children can spend online

    3) “Under What Condition” Rules

    4) “What” Rules

    Pew survey: 67% of parents already have rules for the kinds of video games they can play

    Slide35 l.jpg
    Regardless of other issues or disagreements,we all need to think about how video games fit into a “balanced media diet”