GamesBeat

What naughty stuff will get your video game into ratings trouble? (NSFW)

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board came up with a questionnaire today that it hopes will address the need to provide appropriateness ratings for the growing number of downloadable online games. Now game developers will have a better picture about what is OK to submit in terms of racy, violent, or other potentially offensive content.

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.

We’ve now had a look at the questionnaire — which generates an automatic rating of a game for a developer — and we’ll show below some of the interesting examples that, by our own inferences, could get a game into hot water with the ratings board.

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. But it’s quite possible the automated system could eventually extend beyond that.

To get a downloadable console game rated, game makers fill out the questionnaire in a lot of detail. Then a computer program will determine the rating for the game, based on the best intelligence on past ratings for games by the ESRB. Thanks to the automation, it is possible — but not absolutely certain — that the new ratings system wil eventually be applied to all sorts of games, including mobile games, social games, and online web games in addition to the online console content for which it is intended today. Online or mobile game makers who thought they could forever escape the more restrictive ratings system of the consoles might find themselves in hot water one day soon.

Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB, said in an interview there is no guarantee the system as devised will be extended to mobile and online games. But the system has been designed to scale up to a much larger number of ratings requests. Vance said that the ratings board came up with the words and types of scenes mentioned in the questionnaire through 15 years of experience rating games. It basically means the questionnaire is a peek into the minds of parents and others who want to protect our kids.

Here are some interesting things to know about the questionnaire: The big touch points are realism, violence, sex, gambling, drugs, and bodily functions. These are the categories of game play that parents are usually concerned about, Vance said.

When it comes to violent games, the questionnaire gets quite sophisticated. For instance, it takes into account a lot of factors, such whether or not a game is played from a first-person or third-person view, said Vance. A game is more likely to be objectionable based on graphic violence if it uses a more gut-wrenching first-person view.

“Perspective is a huge factor in video game ratings,” Vance said.

The game will also be more controversial if it depicts violence against “humans or human-like characters.” Developers can click on a question mark to get an idea of what sorts of images are covered. A zombie in human form or a realistic depiction of a person counts. An elf, dwarf, Vulcan, or Replicant counts as a human-like character. But images of characters such as Medusas, Harpies, or Halo Elites (pictured right) don’t count as human-like. (Evidently, you can blast away at such characters without getting into an argument with the ESRB).

One of the questions notes some complexity to violent situations, such as whether the player is trying to avoid violence in the game play but may incur violence in a failure scenario. It evidently makes a difference in the ratings if the violence is discussed or overheard, but not visually depicted. Another question asks if the violence is depicted from an omniscient camera angle or far away and whether it is directly or indirectly controlled by the player.

The ESRB asks if the game contains “bodily functions (e.g. belching, flatulence, vomiting) used for humorous purposes.” If you answer yes to that question, the ESRB asks you to check on whether it has “mucus, belching, flatulence sounds.” It also asks in a separate question if there is “flatulence (with depiction of ‘flatulence cloud’), whimsical depictions of feces (‘poo coils’), vomiting. Presumably, since these are different categories, one response will get a more severe rating than the other.

The questionnaire also asks if the game has “urination, urine, realistically depicted feces”. And — this one has to be the worst of all reserved for mature-rated or adults-only games — if there is an act of “human defecation visually depicted.”

Language is a sure hot spot as well. The ESRB separates language into six different categories. One is “minor profanities” such as “damn” or “hell.” Another is epithets such as “bastard,” “bitch” or “jackass.” The word “ass” is evidently a category unto itself. Then there are scatological vulgarities: “shit, piss, asshole, dick (i.e. jerk), jerk, or pussy (i.e. wimp).” Racial obscenities is another category. And then there are the sexual obscenities or vulgarisms: fuck, cunt, cocksucker, dick (i.e. penis) and pussy (i.e. vagina).

As for sexual material, the questionnaire asks if the game depicts “provocative outfits” or, in another category, “human buttocks, nipple-less breasts, breasts with minimal coverage (e.g. pasties, long hair). Then there are separate categories for “human breasts with nipples” and “genitalia.”

The questionnaire also asks if there is any “suggestive dialogue, innuendo, or double entendre.” It asks about “overtly sexual situations,” “references to sex or sexuality without descriptive detail,” references to sex and sexuality with descriptive detail,” and “references to coerced or forced sexual activity.”

Clearly, the ESRB put a lot of thought into the questions. Vance said the group tested the ratings questionnaire for months and tried to pare it back from a very large list of questions to those that focused on cultural flashpoints. She estimates the questionnaire’s accuracy is somewhere around 95 percent in terms of how close it matches that of human game raters.

Developers can fabricate answers to these questions if they want, but they have to pay a $500 fee upon submission and they also have to submit a DVD disk with the images from the game on it. If they are found to have misled the ESRB in order to get a better rating, the ESRB will have their game pulled from the online store and they’ll have to go through a resubmission. That’s a pretty heavy stick to ensure developers and publishers play by the rules, Vance said.

[photo credit: scrapetv]


Mobile developer or publisher? VentureBeat is studying mobile marketing automation. Fill out our 5-minute survey, and we'll share the data with you.
0 comments

GamesBeat is your source for gaming news and reviews. But it's also home to the best articles from gamers, developers, and other folks outside of the traditional press. Register or log in to join our community of writers. You can even make a few bucks publishing stories here! Learn more.

You are now an esteemed member of the GamesBeat community. That means you can comment on stories or post your own to GB Unfiltered (look for the "New Post" link by mousing over your name in the red bar up top). But first, why don't you fill out your via your ?

About GamesBeat