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Content ratings board to evaluate downloadable games — with help of computers

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a group that rates the age-appropriateness of video games, has created a new automated system for rating downloadable game content available on the consoles’ online stores.

The effort — aided by automatic appraisals from a computer program — reduces the amount of manual labor involved in evaluating whether a game is appropriate for young audiences. And it promises a way for a small industry-funded ratings board to keep up with flood of new online game content pouring into our living rooms. That curation model is necessary because of concerns about children’s exposure to excessive violence in video games, but the automation is necessary to keep up with the flood.

The new ratings apply to games submitted to Microsoft’s Xbox Live online game service as well as the Nintendo Wii Shop and DS Shop and the Sony PlayStation Network store. The issue is an important one, as objections to game content could slow down the growth of the industry, and because the video game industry has a big case on game violence before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ESRB rates games with labels such as “everyone,” “everyone 10+,” “teens,” “mature,” or “adults only.” The agency decides whether games have too much gore, sex, or foul language. To screen a higher volume of submissions for online content, the ESRB will rely on game makers to fill out questionnaires with lots of details on the nuances of violence, sexuality, profanity, drug use, gambling and bodily functions that could potentially offend players.

The ESRB will then use its program to automatically assign a rating to the online game, taking into account the voluntary submission. It will still have a human in the loop. Game companies have to submit a final version to the ESRB, and the human screener will check it to make sure the rating is appropriate. If the game maker leaves out anything important, the game will be pulled from the online store and go through a resubmission process.

Game companies will have to fill out the form carefully, since they don’t want to get caught with the costly process of resubmission, which would throw their marketing plans off schedule. The U.S. Supreme Court is due to issue a ruling soon on a California law that makes it a crime to sell mature-rated video games to minors.

The ESRB is an industry trade group with funding from game makers. It was set up in 1994 to avoid Congressional action on video game violence. While the new rating system extends to the online versions of consoles and handheld game systems, it does not cover the huge number of games on smartphones, tablets and the web. The ESRB rated 1,600 games last year and only 30 percent were online.

Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB, said the new rating process considers the same elements reviewed by human raters. She said the benefit is that the ESRB will be able to scale the system while keeping its services affordable and accessible.


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