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Before we can have a global video game rating system, we need a national one

Last week, the chairman of the Entertainment Software Rating Board called for a common rating system, a single system that would remain unchanged whether you were playing a game on the Wii U in North Dakota or on an iPhone in Shanghai.

It sounds unfeasible at face value, but the call for action is tied to a growing international movement that has surprising depth and support.

While it's unlikely that the ratings used in the United States, governed by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, would ever become some sort of international standard, what is happening is a move toward a universal process. And perhaps that's more important.

Officials at both the ESRB and Europe's rating board, PEGI, tell Polygon that the first attempts at a new streamlined universal process is already being tested.

The idea is that a game maker will apply for a rating through this system and the system will automatically generate ratings for all of the participating countries. That way each country would retain the local ratings that consumers there know and trust.

Currently, this process would only be used for downloadable games. Boxed copies destined for in-store sales would still have to go through a pre-rating screening, because the cost of a last minute change would be too high if a rating ever had to be tweaked.

This single application will greatly reduce the time and cost of applying multiple times for ratings around the world.

And because the system allows each region to keep their local ratings, it's been an easy discussion.

"We're absolutely committed to it," said Simon Little, managing director of PEGI. "It's a great idea as far as we are concerned. It builds upon the method we have been using in Europe for the last ten years."

While PEGI, which is used in more than 30 countries, is on board, Little says there's still a lot of work to be done to get global acceptance.

"There are a lot of discussions happening and a lot of work to be done and a lot of players to get on board," Little said.

ESRB head Patricia Vance echoed Little's sentiment.

"This isn't going to happen over night," she said. "It's a long-term strategy that will have us end up in the next six months with a system that is up and running and operational."

Vance added that the group already has a functioning tool that is being tested.

Tied to this process is a perhaps bigger issue: Where once most commercially available video games received ratings, the advent of casual games, of Apple and Android games, of Facebook and other browser-based games, have created a new wild west for ratings.

Facebook, for instance, doesn't rate the games playable on their platform. Android and Apple both have their own unique, and lesser-known systems.

The result is a "alphabet soup" of ratings, as ESRB chairman and EA head John Riccitiello said last week.

And it's a potential minefield for parents.

Apple's popular idevices all have robust parental controls, but they remain tied to an unfamiliar system.

While Apple supports the national standards for music, television and movie ratings, the company leans on it's own, oddly out-of-sync rating system for apps, including games.

Where the ESRB ratings for video games uses a well-known, detailed content-based rating system, Apple's system simply drops apps into one of four categories: 4+, 9+, 12+ and 17+. There's no easy way to figure out why the games received the ratings they were given, nor is Apple very public about the overall process.

By comparison, the ESRB's rating system includes six, movie-like ratings with content descriptors so you know whether a game received a Mature rating because of violence or, say, nudity. The recently improved system also includes warning labels for interactive elements of a game, including the sharing of personal information or physical location and exposure to unfiltered user-generated content.

Apple's decision to create their own rating system, while relying on the existing systems for movies, music and television, seems even more odd when you look at how familiar most people are with the current slate of video game ratings.

A recent study commissioned by the ESRB found that 85 percent of parents are aware of their ratings. That's compared to 93 percent for television ratings.

Apple has failed to address criticism or discuss the issue for nearly three years now. Officials at Apple didn't respond to requests for comment on this story.

Nor did officials at Facebook or Google.

The ESRB's long fight for First Amendment protection came with a price, an unspoken obligation to live up to those earned rights. But the problem is that these upstart gaming platforms, even as they explode in popularity as places to play games, still don't seem to recognize the value of gaming or the importance of being responsible gate keepers of content.

And how can the rating boards for each country expect to find common ground with one another if they can't get the game makers in their own countries to come to an agreement?

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.

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