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The Ratings Game, Part 3: Dueling Standards

07 May

When Sega, Nintendo, and the Software Publishers Association (SPA) announced just before the Senate hearing of December 9, 1993, that they had agreed in principle to create a standardized rating system for videogames, the timing alone marked it as an obvious ploy to deflect some of the heat that was bound to come their way later that day. At the same time, though, it was also more than a ploy: it was in fact the culmination of an effort that had been underway in some quarters of the industry for months already, one which had begun well before the good Senators Lieberman and Kohl discovered the horrors of videogame violence and sex. As Bill White of Sega was at pains to point out throughout the hearing, Sega had been seriously engaged with the question of a rating system for quite some time, and had managed to secure promises of support from a considerable portion of the industry. But the one entity that had absolutely rejected the notion was the very one whose buy-in was most essential for any overarching initiative of this sort: Nintendo. “Howard [Lincoln] was not going to be part of any group created by Sega,” laughs Dr. Arthur Pober, one of the experts the latter consulted.

So, Sega decided to go it alone. Again as described by Bill White at the hearing, they rolled out a thoroughly worked-out rating system for any and all games on their platforms just in time for Mortal Kombat in September of 1993. It divided games into three categories: GA for general audiences, MA-13 for those age thirteen or older, and MA-17 for those age seventeen or older. An independent board of experts was drafted to assign each new game its rating without interference from Sega’s corporate headquarters; its chairman was the aforementioned Arthur Pober, a distinguished educational psychologist with decades of research experience about the role of media in children’s lives on his CV. Under his stewardship, Mortal Kombat wound up with an MA-13 rating; Night Trap, which had already been in stores for the better part of a year by that point, was retroactively assigned a rating of MA-17.

Although one might certainly quibble that these ratings reflected the American media establishment’s terror of sex and relatively blasé attitude toward violence, Sega’s rating system bore all the outward signs of being a good-faith exercise. At the very least it was, as White repeatedly stated at the hearing, a good first step, one that was taken before any of the real controversy even began.

The second step was of course Nintendo’s grudging acquiescence to the concept of a universal rating system on the day of the hearing — a capitulation whose significance should not be underestimated in light of the company’s usual attitude toward intra-industry cooperation, which might be aptly summarized as “our way or the highway.” And the third step came less than a month later, at the 1994 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, which in accordance with long tradition took place over the first week of the new year in Las Vegas.

Anyone wandering the floor at this latest edition of CES would have seen a digital-games industry that was more fiercely competitive than ever. Sega, celebrating a recent report that gave them for the first time a slight edge over Nintendo in overall market share, had several attention-grabbing new products on offer, including the latest of their hugely popular Sonic the Hedgehog games; the Activator, an early attempt at a virtual-reality controller; the CDX, a portable CD player that could also be used as a game console; and, most presciently of all, a partnership with AT&T to bring online multiplayer gaming, including voice communication, to the Genesis. Meanwhile Nintendo gave the first hints about what would see the light of day some 30 months later as the Nintendo 64. And other companies were still trying to muscle their way into the bifurcated milieu of the living-room consoles. Among them were Atari, looking for a second shot at videogame glory with their Jaguar console; Philips, still flogging the dead horse known as CD-I; and a well-financed new company known as 3DO, with a console that bore the same name. Many traditional makers of business-oriented computers were suddenly trying to reach many of the same consumers, through products like Compaq’s new home-oriented Presario line; even stodgy old WordPerfect was introducing a line of entertainment and educational software. Little spirit of cooperation was in evidence amidst any of this. With “multimedia” the buzzword of the zeitgeist, the World Wide Web looming on the near horizon, and no clarity whatsoever about what direction digital technology in the home was likely to take over the next few years, the competition in the space was as cutthroat as it had ever been.

And yet in a far less glitzy back room of the conference center, all of these folks and more met to discuss the biggest cooperative initiative ever proposed for their industry, prompted by the ultimatum they had so recently been given by Senators Lieberman and Kohl: “Come up with a rating system for yourself, or we’ll do it for you.” The meeting was organized by the SPA, which had the virtue of not being any of the arch-rival console makers, and was thus presumably able to evince a degree of impartiality. “Companies such as 3DO, Atari, Acclaim, id Software, and Apogee already have rating systems,” said Ken Wasch, the longstanding head of the SPA, to open the proceedings. “But a proliferation of rating systems is confusing to retailers and consumers alike. Even before this became an issue in the halls of Congress or in the media, there was a growing belief that we needed a single, easily recognizable system to rate and label our products.”

But the SPA lost control of the meeting almost from the moment Wasch stepped down from the podium. The industry was extremely fortunate that neither Senator Lieberman nor Kohl took said organization up on an invitation to attend in person. One participant remembers the meeting consisting mostly of “people sitting around a table screaming and carrying on.” Cries of “Censorship!” and “Screw ’em! We’ll make the games we want to make!” dominated for long stretches. Many regarded the very notion of a rating system as an unacceptable intrusion by holier-than-thou bureaucrats; they wanted to call what they insisted was the senators’ bluff, to force them to put up actual government legislation — legislation whose constitutionality would be highly questionable — or to shut up about it.

Yet such advocates of the principle of free speech over all other concerns weren’t the sum total of the problem. Even many of those who felt that a rating system was probably necessary were thoroughly unimpressed with the hosts of the meeting, and not much disposed to fall meekly into line behind them.

The hard reality was that the SPA had never been viewed as a terribly effectual organization. Formed  to be the voice of the computer-software industry in 1984 — i.e., just after the Great Videogame Crash — it had occupied itself mostly with anti-piracy campaigns and an annual awards banquet in the years since. The return of a viable console marketplace in the form of the Nintendo Entertainment System and later the Sega Genesis had left it in an odd position. Most of the publishers of computer games who began moving some or all of their output to the consoles were members of the SPA, and through them the SPA itself got pulled into this brave new world. But there were certainly grounds to question whether the organization’s remit really ought to involve the console marketplace at all. Was the likes of Acclaim, the publisher of console-based videogames like Mortal Kombat, truly in the same business as such other SPA members as the business-software titans Microsoft and WordPerfect? Nintendo had always pointedly ignored the SPA; Sega had joined as a gesture of goodwill to their outside publishers who were also members, but hardly regarded it as a major part of their corporate strategy. In addition to being judged slow, bureaucratic, and uncreative, the SPA was regarded by everyone involved with the consoles as being much more invested in computer software of all stripes than console-based videogames. And what with computer games representing in the best case fifteen percent of the overall digital-games market, that alone struck them as a disqualifier for spearheading an initiative like this one.

Electronic Arts, the largest of all of the American game publishers, was in an interesting position here. Founded in 1983 to publish games exclusively for computers, EA had begun moving onto consoles in a big way at the dawn of the 1990s, scoring hits there with such games as the first installments in the evergreen John Madden Football series. By the beginning of 1994, console games made up over two-thirds of their total business.

A senior vice president at EA by the name of Jack Heistand felt that an industry-wide rating system was “the right thing to do. I really believed in my heart that we needed to communicate to parents what the content was inside games.” Yet he also felt convinced from long experience that the SPA was hopelessly ill-equipped for a project of this magnitude, and the disheartening meeting which the SPA tried to lead at CES only cemented that belief. So, immediately after the meeting was over, he approached EA’s CEO Larry Probst with a proposal: “Let’s get all the [other] CEOs together to form an industry association. I will chair it.” Probst readily agreed.

Jack Heistand

The SPA was not included in this other, secret meeting, even though it convened at that same CES. Its participants rather included a representative from each of the five manufacturers of currently or potentially viable consoles: Sega, Nintendo, Atari, Philips, and 3DO. Rounding out their numbers were two videogame-software publishers: Acclaim Entertainment of Mortal Kombat fame and of course Electronic Arts. With none of the console makers willing to accept one of their rivals as chairman of the new steering committee, they soon voted to bestow the role upon Jack Heistand, just as he had planned it.

Sega, convinced of the worthiness of their own rating system, would have happily brought the entirety of the industry under its broad tent and been done with it, but this Nintendo’s pride would never allow. It became clear as soon as talks began, if it hadn’t been already, that whatever came next would have to be built from scratch. With Senators Lieberman and Kohl breathing down their necks, they would all have to find a way to come together, and they would have to do so quickly. The conspirators agreed upon an audacious timetable indeed: they wanted to have a rating system in place for all games that shipped after October 31, 1994 — just in time, in other words, for the next Christmas buying season. It was a tall order, but they knew that they would be able to force wayward game publishers to comply if they could only get their own house in order, thanks to the fact all of the console makers in the group employed the walled-garden approach to software: all required licenses to publish on their platforms, meaning they could dictate which games would and would not appear there. They could thus force a rating system to become a ubiquitous reality simply by pledging not to allow any games on their consoles which didn’t include a rating.

On February 3, 1994, Senator Lieberman introduced the “Video Game Rating Act” to the United States Senate, stipulating that an “Interactive Entertainment Rating Commission” should be established, with five members appointed by President Bill Clinton himself; this temporary commission would be tasked with founding a new permanent governmental body to do what the industry had so far not been willing to do for itself. Shortly thereafter, Representative Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, introduced parallel legislation in the House. Everyone involved made it clear, however, that they would be willing to scrap their legislation if the industry could demonstrate to their satisfaction that it was now addressing the problem itself. Lieberman, Kohl, and Lantos were all pleased when Sega dropped Night Trap from their product line as a sort of gesture of good faith; the controversial game had never been a particularly big seller, and had now become far more trouble than it was worth. (Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, was still posting sales that made it worth the controversy…)

On March 4, 1994, three representatives of the videogame industry appeared before Lieberman, Kohl, and Lantos at a hearing that was billed as a “progress report.” The only participant in the fractious hearing of three months before who returned for this one was Howard Lincoln of Nintendo, who had established something of a rapport with Senator Lieberman on that earlier occasion. Sega kept Bill White, who most definitely had not, well away, sending instead a white-haired senior vice president named Edward Volkwein. But most of the talking was done by the industry’s third representative, Jack Heistand. His overriding goal was to convince the lawmakers that he and his colleagues were moving as rapidly as possible toward a consistent industry-wide rating system, and should be allowed the balance of the year to complete their work before any legislation went forward. He accordingly emphasized over and over that ratings would appear on the boxes of all new videogames released after October 31.

The shift in tone from the one hearing to the next was striking; this one was a much more relaxed, even collegial affair than last time out. Lieberman, Kohl, and Lantos all praised the industry’s efforts so far, and kept the “think of the children!” rhetoric to a minimum in favor of asking practical questions about how the rating system would be implemented. “I don’t need to get into that argument again,” said Senator Lieberman when disagreements over the probability of a linkage between videogame violence and real-world aggression briefly threatened to ruin the good vibe in the room.

“I think you’re doing great,” said Senator Kohl at the end of the hearing. “It’s a wonderful start. I really am very pleased.” Mission accomplished: Heistand had bought himself enough time to either succeed or fail before the heavy hand of government came back on the scene.



Heistand’s remit was rapidly growing into something much more all-encompassing than just a content-rating board. To view his progress was to witness nothing less than an industry waking up to its shared potential and its shared problems. As I’ve already noted, the videogame industry as a whole had long been dissatisfied with its degree of representation in the SPA, as well as with the latter’s overall competence as a trade organization. This, it suddenly realized, was a chance to remedy that. Why not harness the spirit of cooperation that was in the air to create an alternative to the SPA that would focus solely on the needs of videogame makers? Once that was done, this new trade organization could tackle the issue of a rating system as just the first of many missions.

The International Digital Software Association (IDSA) was officially founded in April of 1994. Its initial members included Acclaim, Atari, Capcom, Crystal Dynamics, Electronic Arts, Konami, Nintendo, Philips, Sega, Sony, Viacom, and Virgin, companies whose combined sales made up no less than 60 percent of the whole videogame industry. Its founding chairman was Jack Heistand, and its first assigned task was the creation of an independent Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).

Heistand managed to convince Nintendo and the others to accept the man who had chaired Sega’s ratings board for the same role in the industry-wide system. Arthur Pober had a reputation for being, as Heistand puts it, “very honorable. A man of integrity.” “Arthur was the perfect guy,” says Tom Kalinske, then the president and CEO of Sega of America. “He had good relationships inside of the education world, inside of the child-development world, and knew the proper child psychologists and sociologists. Plus, we knew he could do it — because he had already done it for us!”

Neutral parties like Pober helped to ease some of the tension that inevitably sprang up any time so many fierce competitors were in the room together. Heistand extracted a promise from everyone not to talk publicly about their work here — a necessary measure given that Howard Lincoln and Tom Kalinske normally used each and every occasion that offered itself to advance their own company and disparage their rival. (Witness Lincoln’s performance at the hearing of December 9…)

Over the course of the next several months, the board hammered out a rating system that was more granular and detailed than the one Sega had been using. It divided games into five rather than three categories: “Early Childhood” (EC) for children as young as age three; “Kids to Adults” (K-A) for anyone six years of age or older; “Teen” (T) for those thirteen or older; “Mature” (M) for those seventeen or older; and “Adults Only” (AO) for those eighteen or older. It was not a coincidence that these ratings corresponded fairly closely to the movie industry’s ratings of G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. A team of graphic artists came up with easily recognizable icons for each of the categories — icons which proved so well-designed for their purpose that most of them are still used to this day.

The original slate of ESRB icons. Since 1994, remarkably few changes have been made: the “Kids to Adults” category has been renamed “Everyone,” and a sixth category of games suitable for those ten years and older, known in the rating system’s nomenclature as “Everyone 10+,” has been added.

The ESRB itself was founded as a New York-based non-profit. Each game would be submitted to it in the form of a videotape of 30 to 40 minutes in length, which must contain the game’s most “extreme” content. The board would then assign the game to one of its teams of three reviewers, all of whom were trained and overseen by the ESRB under the close scrutiny of Arthur Pober. The reviewers were allowed to have no financial or personal ties to the videogame industry, and were hired with an eye to demographic diversity: an example which Heistand gave of an ideal panel consisted of a retired black male elementary-school principal, a 35-year-old white full-time mother of two, and a 22-year-old white male law student. A measure of checks and balances was built into the process: publishers would have the chance to appeal ratings with which they disagreed, and all rated games would have to pass a final audit a week before release to ensure that the videotape which had been submitted had been sufficiently representative of the overall experience. The ESRB aimed to begin accepting videotapes on September 1, 1994, in keeping with the promise that all games released after October 31 would have a rating on the box. Everything was coming together with impressive speed.

But as Heistand prepared to return to Washington to report all of this latest progress on July 29, 1994, there remained one part of the games industry which had not fallen into line. The SPA was not at all pleased by the creation of a competing trade association, nor by having the rug pulled out from under its own rating initiative. And the computer-game makers among its members didn’t face the same compulsion to accept the ESRB’s system, given that they published on open platforms with no gatekeepers.



The relationship between computer games and their console-based brethren had always been more complicated than outsiders such as Senators Lieberman and Kohl were wont to assume. While the degree of crossover between the two had always been considerable, computer gaming had been in many ways a distinct form of media in its own right since the late 1970s. Computer-game makers claimed that their works were more sophisticated forms of entertainment, with more variety in terms of theme and subject matter and, in many cases, more complex and cerebral forms of gameplay on offer. They had watched the resurrection of the console marketplace with as much dismay as joy, being unimpressed by what many of them saw as the dumbed-down “kiddie aesthetic” of Nintendo and the stultifying effect which the consoles’ walled gardens had on creativity; there was a real feeling that the success of Nintendo and its ilk had come at the cost of a more diverse and interesting future for interactive entertainment as a whole. Perhaps most of all, computer-game makers and their older-skewing demographic of players profoundly resented the wider culture’s view of digital games of any stripe as essentially children’s toys, to be regulated in the same way that one regulated Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars. These resentments had not disappeared even as many of the larger traditional computer-game publishers, such as EA, had been tempted by the booming market for console-based videogames into making products for those systems as well.

Johnny L. Wilson, the editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World magazine, voiced in an editorial the objections which many who made or played computer games had to the ESRB:

[The ESRB rating system] has been developed by videogame manufacturers and videogame publishers without significant input by computer-based publishers. The lone exception to this rule is Electronic Arts, which publishes personal-computer titles but nets more than two-thirds of its proceeds from videogame sales. The plan advocated by this group of videogame-oriented companies calls for every game to be viewed by an independent panel prior to release. This independent panel would consist of parents, child psychologists, and educators.

How does this hurt you? This panel is not going to understand that you are a largely adult audience. They are not going to perceive that there is a marketplace of mature gamers. Everything they evaluate will be examined under the rubric, “Is it good for children?” As a result, many of the games covered in Computer Gaming World will be rated as unsuitable for children, and many retailers will refuse to handle these games because they perceive themselves as family-oriented stores and cannot sell unsuitable merchandise.

The fate of Night Trap, an unusually “computer-like” console game, struck people like Wilson as an ominous example of how rating games could lead to censoring them.

Honestly held if debatable opinions like the above, combined perhaps with pettier resentments about the stratospheric sales of console games in comparison to those that ran on computers and its own sidelining by the IDSA, led the SPA to reject the ESRB, and to announce the formation of its own ratings board just for computer games. It was to be called the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC), and its founding president was to be Robert Roden, the general counsel and director of business affairs for the computer-game publisher LucasArts. This choice of an industry insider rather than an outside expert like Arthur Pober reflected much of what was questionable about the alternative rating initiative.

Indeed, and although much of the reasoning used to justify a competing standard was cogent enough, the RSAC’s actual plan for its rating process was remarkable mostly for how comprehensively it failed to address the senators’ most frequently stated concerns about any self-imposed rating standard. Instead of asking publishers to submit videotapes of gameplay for review by an independent panel, the RSAC merely provided them with a highly subjective questionnaire to fill out; in effect, it allowed them to “self-rate” their own games. And, in a reflection of computer-game makers’ extreme sensitivity to any insinuation that their creations were just kids’ stuff, the RSAC rejected outright any form of age-based content rating. Age-based rating systems were “patronizing,” claimed the noted RSAC booster Johnny L. Wilson, because “different people of widely disparate ages have different perceptions of what is appropriate.” In lieu of sorting ratings by age groups, the RSAC would use descriptive labels stipulating the amount and type of violence, sex, and profanity, with each being ranked on a scale from zero to four.

The movie industry’s rating system was an obvious counterexample to this idea that age-based classification must necessarily entail the infantilization of art; certainly cinema still enjoyed vastly more cultural cachet than computer games, despite its own longstanding embrace of just such a system. But the computer-game makers were, it would seem, fairly blinded by their own insecurities and resentments.

A representative of the SPA named Mark Traphagen was invited to join Jack Heistand at the hearing of July 29 in order to make the case for the RSAC’s approach to rating computer games. The hearing began in an inauspicious fashion for him. Senator Lieberman, it emerged during opening statements, had discovered id Software’s hyper-violent computer game of DOOM in the interim between this hearing and the last. This occasion thus came to mark the game’s coming-out party on the national stage. For the first but by no means the last time, a politician showed a clip of it in action, then lit into what the audience had just seen.

What you see there is an individual with a successive round of weapons — a handgun, machine gun, chainsaw — just continuing to attack targets. The bloodshed, the gunfire, and the increasingly realistic imagery combine to create a game that I would not want my daughter or any other child to see or to play.

What you have not seen is some of the language that is displayed onscreen when the game is about to be played. “Act like a man!” the player is told. “Slap a few shells into your shotgun and let’s kick some demonic butt! You’ll probably end up in Hell eventually. Shouldn’t you know your way around before you make an extended visit?”

Well, some may say this is funny, but I think it sends the wrong message to our kids. The game’s skill levels include “I’m Too Young To Die” and “Hurt Me Plenty.” That obviously is not the message parents want their kids to hear.

Mark Traphagen received quite a grilling from Lieberman for the patent failings of the RSAC self-rating system. He did the best he could, whilst struggling to educate his interrogators on the differences between computer and console games. He stipulated that the two were in effect different industries entirely — despite the fact that many software publishers were, as we’ve seen, active in both. This was an interesting stand to take, not least in the way that it effectively ceded the ground of console-based software to the newly instituted IDSA, in the hope that the SPA could hang onto computer games.

Traphagen: Despite popular misconceptions and their admitted similarities to consumers, there are major differences between the personal-computer-software industry and the videogame industry. While personal-computer software and videogame software may be converging toward the compact disc as the preferred storage medium, those of us who develop and publish entertainment software see no signs of a convergence in either product development or marketing.

The personal-computer-software industry is primarily U.S.-based, small to medium in size, entrepreneurial, and highly innovative. Like our plan to rate software, it is based on openness. Its products run on open-platform computers and can be produced by any of thousands of companies of different sizes, without restrictive licensing agreements. There is intense competition between our industry and the videogame industry, marked by the great uncertainty about whether personal computers or some closed platform will prevail in the forthcoming “information superhighway.”

Senator Lieberman: Maybe you should define what a closed platform is in this regard.

Traphagen: A closed platform, Senator, is one in which the ability to create software that will run on that particular equipment is controlled by licensing agreements. In order to create software that will run on those platforms, one has to have the permission and consent of the equipment manufacturer.

Senator Lieberman: And give us an example of that.

Traphagen: A closed platform would be a videogame player.

Senator Lieberman: Such as a Sega or Nintendo?

Traphagen: That is right. In contrast, personal computers are an open platform in which any number of different companies can simply buy a development package at a retailer or a specialty store and then create software that will operate on the computer.

Traphagen explained the unwillingness of computer-game makers to fall under the thumb of the IDSA by comparing them to indie film studios attempting to negotiate the Hollywood machine. Yet he was able to offer little in defense of the RSAC’s chosen method of rating games. He made the dubious claim that creating a videotape for independent evaluation would be too technically burdensome on a small studio, and had even less to offer when asked what advantage accrued to not rating games by suitable age groups: “I do not believe there is an advantage, Senator. There was simply a decision that was taken that the ratings would be as informative as possible, without being judgmental.”

Some five weeks after this hearing, the RSAC would hold a press conference in Dallas, Texas, the home of id Software of DOOM fame. In fact, that game was used to illustrate how the rating system would work. Even some of the more sanguine members of the gaming press were surprised when it received a rating of just three out of four for violence. The difference maker, the RSAC representatives explained, was the fact that DOOM‘s violence wasn’t “gratuitous”; the monsters were trying to kill you, so you had no choice but to kill them. One has to presume that Senators Lieberman and Kohl would not have been impressed, and that Mark Traphagen was profoundly thankful that the press conference occurred after his appearance before them.

Even as it was, the senators’ skepticism toward the RSAC’s rating system at the hearing stood out all the more in contrast to their reception of the ESRB’s plan. The relationship between Senator Lieberman and Jack Heistand had now progressed from the cordial to the downright genial; the two men, now on a first-name basis, even made room for some banter on Heistand’s abortive youthful attempts to become a rock star. The specter of government legislation was never even raised to Heistand. It was, needless to say, a completely different atmosphere from the one of December 9. When the hearing was finished, both sides sent out press notices praising the wisdom and can-do spirit of the other in glowing terms.

But much of the rest of the games industry showed far less good grace. As the summer became the fall and it became clear that game ratings really were happening, the rants began, complete with overheated references to Fahrenheit 451 and all of the other usual suspects. Larry O’Brien, the editor of the new Game Developer magazine, made his position clear in the first line of his editorial: “Rating systems are crap.”

With the entire entertainment industry rolling over whenever Congress calls a hearing, it’s fallen on us to denounce these initiatives for what they are: cynical posturing and electioneering with no substance. Rating systems, whether for movies, television, videogames, or any other form of communication, don’t work, cost money, and impede creativity. Everyone at those hearings, politicians and witnesses alike, knows that. But there’s nothing politicians love more than “standing up for the family” and blaming America’s cultural violence on Hollywood. So the entertainment industry submissively pisses all over itself and proposes “voluntary” systems from the pathetic to the laughable.

Parents should decide. If parents don’t want their kids to play X-COM or see Terminator 2, they should say no and put up with the ensuing argument. They don’t need and shouldn’t get a rating system to supplement their authority. The government has no right to help parents say no at the video store if that governmental interference impedes your right to develop whatever content you feel appropriate.

We all have responsibilities. To create responsibly, to control the viewing and gaming habits of our own children, and to call the government’s ratings initiatives what they are: cynical, ineffective, and wrong-headed.

The libertarian-leaning Wired magazine, that voice of cyber-futurism, published a jeremiad from Rogier Van Bakel that was equally strident.

Violent games such as DOOM, Night Trap, and Mortal Kombat are corrupting the minds and morals of millions of American children. So what do you do? Easy.

You elect people like Herb Kohl and Joe Lieberman to the US Senate. You applaud them when they tell the videogame industry that it’s made up of irrepressible purveyors of gratuitous gore and nefarious nudity. You nod contentedly when the senators give the industry an ultimatum: “Either you start rating and stickering your games real soon, or we, the government, will do it for you.”

You are pleasantly surprised by the industry’s immediate white flag: a rating system that is almost as detailed as the FDA-mandated nutrition information on a can of Campbell’s. You contend that that is, in fact, a perfect analogy: all you want, as a consumer, is honest product labeling. Campbell’s equals Sega equals Kraft equals 3DO.

Finally, you shrug when someone remarks that it may not be a good idea to equate soup with freedom of speech.

All that was needed now was a good conspiracy theory. This Karen Crowther, a spokesperson for makers of shareware computer games, helpfully provided when she said that the government had gotten “hoodwinked by a bunch of foreign billion-dollar corporations (such as Sony, Nintendo, and Sega) out to crush their US competition.”

Robert Peck, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, flirted with a legal challenge:

This [rating] system is a response to the threat of Senators Lieberman and Kohl that they would enact legislation requiring labels unless the industry did something to preempt them. The game manufacturers are being required to engage in speech that they would otherwise not engage in. These ratings have the government’s fingerprints all over them.

This present labeling system isn’t going to be the end of it. I think some games are going to be negatively affected, sales-wise, and the producers of those games will probably bring a lawsuit. We will then see that this system will be invalidated.

The above bears a distinct whiff of legalistic wishful thinking; none of it came to pass.

While voices like these ranted and raved, Jack Heistand, Arthur Pober, and their associates buckled down soberly to the non-trivial task of putting a rating on all new console-based videogames that holiday season, and succeeded in doing so with an efficiency that one has to admire, regardless of one’s position on the need for such a system. Once the initial shock to the media ecosystem subsided, even some of the naysayers began to see the value in the ESRB’s work.

Under the cover of the rating system, for example, Nintendo felt able to relax many of their strict “family-friendly” content policies. The second “Mortal Monday,” heralding the release of Mortal Kombat II on home consoles, came in September of 1994, before the ESRB’s icons had even started to appear on games. Nevertheless, Nintendo improvised a stopgap badge labeling the game unsuitable for those under the age of seventeen, and felt protected enough by it to allow the full version of the coin-op original on their platform this time, complete with even more blood and gore than its predecessor. It was an early sign that content ratings might, rather than leading game makers to censor themselves, give them a feeling of carte blanche to be more extreme.

By 1997, Game Developer was no longer railing against the very idea of a rating system, but was fretting instead over whether the ESRB’s existing approach was looking hard enough at the ever more lifelike violence made possible by the latest graphics hardware. The magazine worried about unscrupulous publishers submitting videotapes that did not contain their games’ most extreme content, and the ESRB failing to catch on to this as games continued to grow larger and larger: “The ESRB system uses three (count ’em, three) ‘demographically diverse’ people to rate a game. (And I thought television’s Nielsen rating system used a small sample set.) As the stakes go up in the ratings game, the threat of a publisher abusing our rating system grows larger and larger.”

Meanwhile the RSAC strolled along in a more shambolic manner, stickering games here and there, but never getting anything close to the complete buy-in from computer-game publishers that the ESRB received from console publishers. These respective patterns held throughout the five years in which the dueling standards existed.

In the end, in other words, the computer-game people got what they had really wanted all along: a continuing lack of any concerted examination of the content of their works. Some computer games did appear with the ESRB icons on their boxes, others with the RSAC schemas, but plenty more bothered to include no content guidance at all. Satisfied for the time being with the ESRB, Senators Lieberman and Kohl didn’t call any more hearings, allowing the less satisfying RSAC system to slip under the radar along with the distinct minority of digital games to which it was applied, even as computer games like Duke Nukem 3D raised the bar for violence far beyond the standard set by DOOM. The content of computer games wouldn’t suffer serious outside scrutiny again until 1999, the year that a pair of rabid DOOM and Duke Nukem fans shot up their high school in Columbine, Colorado, killing thirteen teachers and students and injuring another 24. But that is a tragedy and a controversy for a much, much later article…

(Sources: the books Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent, and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff; Game Developer of September 1994, December 1994, August/September 1995, September 1997, and January 1998; Computer Gaming World of June 1994, December 1994, May 1996, and July 1999; Electronic Entertainment of November 1994 and January 1995; Mac Addict of January 1996; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Spring 1994; Washington Post of July 29 1994; the article “Regulating Violence in Video Games: Virtually Everything” by Alex Wilcox in the Journal of the National Association of Administrative Law Judiciary, Volume 31, Issue 1; the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s publication Rating Video Games: A Parent’s Guide to Games; the 1994 episode of the television show Computer Chronicles entitled “Consumer Electronics Show.” Online sources include Blake J. Harris’s “Oral History of the ESRB” at VentureBeat and C-SPAN’s coverage of the Senate hearings of December 9 1993, March 4 1994, and July 29 1994.)

 

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31 Responses to The Ratings Game, Part 3: Dueling Standards

  1. Sarah Walker

    May 7, 2021 at 4:34 pm

    Interesting reading how this evolved in the US.

    There was a parallel version of this running at the same time in the UK (and I’d assume many other countries). Games were mostly exempt from classification following the 1984 Video Recordings Act, with exceptions around extreme violence or sexual content which would require submissions to the BBFC, responsible for film classification; I believe Mortal Kombat and Night Trap both got BBFC certificates. Regardless, there was still a similar panic around the same time, with Night Trap getting mentioned in parliament.

    The response was the voluntary ELSPA ratings system, similar to the ESRB system, though I don’t believe it had the same pushback from the computer games industry. This ran alongside the BBFC system. While the ELSPA system seems to have worked okay, the BBFC were much less than ideal for reviewing games which caused a few controversies; my main memories are Doom II’s 18 rating (apparently given due to fear of a moral panic rather than any content actually in the game; it was later re-rated 15), the Carmageddon ‘green blood’ censoring which was quickly un-done by a patch, and the delays in Carmageddon 2’s rating due to the BBFC not owning a 3D accelerator card. In any case both systems were scrapped in the 2000s and replaced with the Europe-wide PEGI ratings.

     
    • David Boddie

      May 7, 2021 at 9:01 pm

      Link for the UK parliamentary mention of Night Trap: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=1993-12-16a.1395.0#g1399.1

       
    • Bingo

      May 8, 2021 at 4:13 am

      “the Europe-wide PEGI ratings.”

      Yes, most of Europe uses the PEGI rating system but there is one outlier: Germany has its own system managed by a body called USK which is inspired/derived from the national film rating system FSK which was established earlier.

      Games that are rated by the USK are played by the people evaluating and rating them instead of just relying on footage and/or information provided by the developer or publisher.

      Some games released in Germany feature both PEGI and USK ratings on their box covers which can make them look a bit cluttered, especially when they also include other icons, ad blurbs, stickers, etc.

       
  2. Martin

    May 7, 2021 at 6:21 pm

    Can anyone explain the content differences between M and AO? Example games in the AO category and why? Didn’t even know there was such a rating.

    As for America’s ‘fear’ of sex but relative acceptance of violence, I assume that would be a relic of a Puritanical background.

     
    • Krebizfan

      May 7, 2021 at 7:19 pm

      The list of AO games: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_AO-rated_video_games Not many and most were deliberately pushing for the rating to get the marketing boost of controversy making up for being poorly designed games.

      Looking at the ESRB scheme, extended sex and violence scenes and the use of real money for gambling triggers an AO rating. The difference would be between sequences the story requires and pure porn as evaluated by the members of the ESRB.

       
    • Gnoman

      May 8, 2021 at 2:49 am

      The difference between M and AO is the difference between R and NC-17/X. Very few games have ever received an AO rating because all of the major retailers absolutely refused to stock any game with that rating. Before the Internet, this was a death knell to sales.

      More practically, console makers generally refused to allow content that would go beyond M anyway, out of fears that it would hurt their brand. The only major title that ever got the rating did so retroactively – Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was upped from M to AO because hackers were able to find and re-enable a sex minigame that had been scrapped early in development. Rockstar dealt with this by releasing a “second edition” that had the offending content scrubbed.

       
      • Kevin Butler

        May 10, 2021 at 5:51 pm

        Yep, that would be the “Hot Coffee” code/mod. At first, Rockstar blamed the hackers for putting in said code but after some investigation, it was later discovered the code already existed and Rockstar thought they had hidden and disabled it with full knowledge of said code. The hackers only found the code and with a GameShark or AR code breaker, one could activate that code on version 1 (which now is getting rarer). Rockstar threatened any site that if they published the cheat codes for activating the “Hot Coffee” mini-game, severe repercussions would occur. If anything, it was one of the rare games that became instantly more popular changing from an M to an AO rating although stores refused to carry it until they fixed the problem.

         
    • dmdr

      May 10, 2021 at 12:10 am

      “As for America’s ‘fear’ of sex but relative acceptance of violence, I assume that would be a relic of a Puritanical background.”

      1) not all of America’s early settlers were Puritans ;
      2) even if they were, sex creates new people, violence is a tool for correcting idiots (there’s a reason why marriage by choice has been historically rare). Being ‘fear’ful of violence but blase about sex is essentially the same thing as being mad about spanners but totes OK with unrestricted human cloning, ie. dumb.

      ALSO!!!! I found a typo: “The relationship between computer games and their console-based brethren had always been more complicated than outsiders such as Senators Lieberman and Khol were wont to assume.”

      “Khol”

       
      • Jimmy Maher

        May 10, 2021 at 5:04 am

        Thanks!

         
  3. Lt. Nitpicker

    May 7, 2021 at 7:11 pm

    The blurb on the Sega CDX in your article is misleading, as its game console functions can only be used while attached to a wall socket and TV, in addition to a controller being plugged into the console. By most definitions, this would disqualify it as a “handheld” console. Instead, a better description would be “a portable CD player that could also be used as a traditional game console.”

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      May 7, 2021 at 8:04 pm

      Thanks!

       
      • Alex

        May 9, 2021 at 3:38 pm

        “portable CD player that could also be used a game console”

        I think it’s missing an “as” in the updated version

         
        • Jimmy Maher

          May 9, 2021 at 4:56 pm

          Teach me not to make late-night edits. Thanks!

           
          • Lt. Nitpicker

            May 10, 2021 at 4:38 pm

            Minor corection: The Sega (Genesis) CDX console is referred to by that name in promotional material and on the system’s label itself, with no dash.

            Source: https://segaretro.org/File:GenesisCDX_Bottom.jpg

             
            • Jimmy Maher

              May 10, 2021 at 7:27 pm

              Thanks!

               
    • Wutan

      May 8, 2021 at 4:18 am

      Ah, the Sega CDX, also know as the Sega Multimega in some regions, a gorgeous looking “all-in-one” version of a Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Sega CD/Mega CD and a portable (battery powered) CD player.

      I had me one of those many years back. It was just beautiful to look at and very compact in size in comparison to its “donor” consoles. I wish I hadn’t sold it… :-(

       
  4. Jeff Scott

    May 8, 2021 at 6:49 am

    The video of Doom sounded like it was using the pc speaker. I wonder whether that was a deliberate choice or just due to a lack of sound card in the computer used to record the footage.

     
  5. Avian Overlord

    May 8, 2021 at 7:37 pm

    Something I’d be really interested to see you write about is the ESRB’s content standards and how they’ve affected the industry. One particular area that comes to mind is the ESRB’s more liberal stance on homosexuality compared to say, the MPAA.

     
  6. Mayhaym

    May 9, 2021 at 9:50 pm

    I always thought the pushback against rating systems in the video/computer game industry had more to do with the earlier self-imposed (under threat of regulation) ratings system in comics, that contributed to the demise of EC Comics (and others).

     
    • Kev McHugh

      June 3, 2021 at 1:51 pm

      The comics industry created the Comics Code Authority in response to government pressure. The CCA was more analogous to the Hays Code (which it was modeled after) than the MPAA. Certain topics or images were strictly off-limits under the CCA.

      This dramatically curtailed what comics artists could do for decades and made horror comics a non-starter. You couldn’t do werewolves or vampires. Not even if you said it was just for adults. There wasn’t a concept of adults material under the CCA, it’s one-size-fits-all.

      So it was presumably an instructive example for the video game industry, who wanted to be able to sell games to adults and teens, and not make everything fit the 8 year old demographic.

      One reason to adopt a rating system is too avoid a Hays Code/CCA style system, which is much more like a censor.

       
  7. mycophobia

    May 10, 2021 at 5:58 pm

    “Kid to Adults” –> “Kids to Adults”

    Also, I believe the “10+” is officially “Everyone 10+”, according to https://www.esrb.org/ratings-guide/

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      May 10, 2021 at 7:29 pm

      Thanks!

       
  8. Michael L Waddell

    May 10, 2021 at 9:27 pm

    > “The meeting was organized by the SPA…”

    You never define that group. Who were they?

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      May 11, 2021 at 5:56 am

      The name is spelled out in the first line of this article, and the organization’s function is described in the previous article in this series. Shortly after the line you cite, the SPA’s purpose, culture, and reputation are discussed in some detail. Not sure how much more defining I can do than that. ;)

       
      • Michael L Waddell

        May 11, 2021 at 1:52 pm

        Ah, there it is. If you put “Software Publishers Association (SPA)” at first mention, it’s easy for readers to recognize and/or search for.

         
        • Eric

          May 19, 2021 at 12:31 pm

          Seconded. As a non-native English speaker who reads The Economist, their fastidious habit of always mentioning acronyms next to the spelled-out names is frequently useful.

           
          • Jimmy Maher

            May 19, 2021 at 1:02 pm

            I kind of hate the way it reads in an opening sentence, but fair enough. Thanks!

             
      • Lisa H.

        May 20, 2021 at 9:47 pm

        If it helps (it probably won’t), the Associated Press and Chicago styles disagree with each other on what to do. Both want you to spell it out on first use, but only Chicago wants you to immediately follow that with the acronym in parentheses; AP prescribes just going ahead and starting to use the acronym with the second use (much like I just did in this sentence).

         
        • Jimmy Maher

          May 21, 2021 at 6:58 am

          I kind of walk a line between the two normally, including acronyms in parentheses only where I think there might be some confusion and where I think it looks okay. I just don’t like it in this opening sentence. But of course clarity has to trump my fussy writerly concerns about aesthetics, difficult as they may be for me to accept sometimes.

           
  9. Michael

    May 15, 2021 at 9:36 pm

    “making products for those system as well”
    Should read “systems.”

    On a different level, I find this sentence a bit questionable: “Why haven’t Tom Sawyer and The Catcher in the Rye been banned from high-school reading lists yet?” he concluded, thus deliberately or inadvertently conflating a rating system with outright censorship.

    It appears to me that you are in fact conflating High School reading lists with “outright censorship.” A reading list is a list of books which have been rated by educators as “appropriate” for the age range in question; hence it resembles a ratings system much more closely than a Nazi book bonfire.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      May 15, 2021 at 9:46 pm

      A fair point. Thanks!

       

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