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A global ratings initiative reexamines Apple, Android games

Rating boards from around the world are working together to come up with a system to quickly and cheaply rate the flood of Android and iOS apps.

ESRB examines rating Android and iTune games.
ESRB examines rating Android and iTune games.

Video games ratings boards from around the world are working in concert to create a more efficient, less expensive system to rate video games for all countries.

The new global system won't change the familiar ratings found on a video game in any particular part of the world, but it will change how a video game receives that rating. The system would rely more heavily on automation and less on people playing through video games or watching videos of gameplay.

"We're working on developing a global solution with other ratings bodies," said Entertainment Software Ratings Board head Patricia Vance.

The idea for a new, more automated process for rating video games was born out of the need to address the flood of downloadable and mobile games hitting the market, many without nationally accepted rating standards. Apple's iTunes marketplace, for instance, uses its own rating system that relies on the developer to rate their own game. But that system ignores the 14 government-backed ratings systems already in place around the world.

Increasingly countries are looking at whether those previously ignored digital games should fall under the mandate of their own rating systems. But most rating boards aren't ready to deal with the spike in rating requests.

"None of us are used to having to rate hundreds of thousands of products," Vance said. "We're used to the typical flow of boxed CDs or movies or games."

"There is a general buy in on the concept. The devil is going to be in the details." ESRB head Vance.

To prepare in the flood of new games brought on with the growing popularity of gaming on devices like the iPhone, Android devices and tablets the ESRB last year ceated a new system that cut down on some of the requirements for getting a rating.

Under the old ESRB ratings system, developers needed to fill out a questionnaire and submit their answers along with a DVD to the ratings board. It cost $4,500 and a week to get a rating. The new system uses a set of questions based on the game's content.

While the new system relies a bit on the honor system (there are spot checks), Vance says that there is no reason for a developer to lie about their game's content.

"What incentive would a developer have for providing misinformation on their box?"

She added that it's also much easier to deal with a rating issue for a digital game than a boxed copy.

If a rating needs to be changed, the game can typically be pulled from online stores almost immediately. That compared to boxed games which have to be recalled from store shelves and shipped back to game publishers.

As the video game industry moves more toward digital content, the ratings board is expecting to shift to this new system for more games.

Vance said she and rating board members from around the world are discussing how to create a single ratings process that can be used for all developers, no matter where they plan to sell their game. The system would ask questions designed by the collective of ratings boards and then spit out ratings appropriate to each country based on cultural norms and that country's particular rules and laws about ratings, she said.

"There is a general buy in on the concept," Vance said. "The devil is going to be in the details, like who funds it and what the questions (for the rating system) should be. They have to be nuanced enough to address the differences in cultural norms.

"It's a good model, it's very ambitious," she added. "And once we build this new platform we can become more focused on being enforcement agencies."

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.

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