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Video game ratings are great for today's games, but may struggle with gaming's future

Twenty years ago this month, video games started to receive their first movie-like ratings.

It was a move driven by a congressional hearing that many believed was on the verge of forcing the situation and creating a federally run commission for the regulation and ratings of video games.

On Sept. 1, 1994 the Entertainment Software Rating Board was launched and a little more than two weeks later the first games received their ratings. First-person shooter Doom received a mature rating, Pitfall a teen, Donkey Kong Country a kids-to-adults rating.

Much has changed since those first ratings hit the boxes of video games. Today about 85 percent of parents say they are familiar with those postage-stamp sized ratings that connote the suitability and content of specific games.

Patricia Vance, president of the board, added that three-quarter of parents regularly use the system to decide whether a game is OK for their kids.

"I think that's clearly an accomplishment and one of which I'm quite proud," she said. "At the end of the day, we're here to provide tools for parents."

Vance points to that high level of awareness as one of the biggest achievements of the ESRB in the dozen year's she's been at the board.

That's followed by the board's push to expand how content is described both on game boxes and on the rating website to parents. What used to be five age-based ratings, was expanded to six in 2005. The board also added content descriptors so parents would know why a game is rated the way it is and icons to show when a game shares info, locations or allows players to interact with one another. The board also added detailed descriptions of the game itself online.

"That dives a lot deeper in terms of content descriptions," she said. "It explains what kind of language to expect and other things. Those have been a real hit with parents."

The board also established a retail council to conduct audits of stores on a regular basis to make sure that those ratings were being used by retailers to voluntarily restrict the sale of M games to those not old enough to purchase them.

While the guidelines are not enforced by law, they still have a strong retail enforcement, she said.

"When the Federal Trade Commission started their mystery shopper program in 2000, enforcement was around 15 percent," Vance said. "In 2013, encorcement had reached 87 percent.

"That doesn't happen by itself, that happens because of a very senior commitment by retailers and a lot of work in terms of auditing and feeding back data about which stores need help with enforcement."

With the current rating system successfully educating parents about the content of video games, the board is starting to spend more time looking toward the future and what challenges ratings may face as games continue to expand.

One challenge Vance says the board is working to confront is that games are now available on so many different devices, many of which don't adhere to the ESRB ratings system.

A streamlined rating system for downloadable games has helped with that problem, but it hasn't been completely solved. The ESRB is also working to try and create an international age rating coalition as well.

While the ratings of retail games continue to improve, the increasing popularity of games that hand control over to the player and online experiences are adding complexity to the issue.

How does a rating board give parents a sense of what to expect from a game when that may be entirely dependent on who they play with? Vance points out that the ESRB identifies when games include features that aren't rated or send gamers online, but that is becoming a very broad segment of gaming.

Massive developer and publisher Ubisoft, the people behind titles like Assassins Creed, Watch Dogs and Just Dance, said last year that it wants all of its games to have major online elements. Electronic Arts, Activision, Take-Two, all seem to be making similar shifts.

The more games that go always online, the more that diminishes the value of a warning label saying a title may have content that's not been rated.

Eventually, every game will have that warning, and then what?

If the Entertainment Software Rating Board wants to stay relevant in a generation of games and gamers born online, they're going to eventually have to tackle the issue head-on and start to delve into the content that, for now, is becoming a growing wild west of unrated play.

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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