The Entertainment Software Review Board (ESRB), starting today, is going to be introducing computers to how the board rates games, according to a report by the New York Times.
In the new system, companies would submit a lengthy digital questionnaire indicating everything within the game, categorized by various types of vulgarity, sexual conduct and other content flags. From there, the game will be rated based on the surveys, and be sent out with that rating. Humans will verify the game’s rating after it has been released. The NY Times article does not clarify if there will be a change to the appeals process in case of a false positive in either direction. Nondisclosure will result in an undisclosed penalty to the company responsible for the nondisclosure.
The system will be rolled out with games released on the digitally-based Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, WiiWare and DSiWare shops. Boxed retail games will remain under the old process, where humans watch a DVD made by the company that shows the most questionable parts of the game. In 2010, the ESRB rated 1,600 games, of which roughly 30% of them (480) of them were exclusively digital.
Analysis: Rating games is different than rating a movie, of which the Motion Picture Association of America rated 850 of in 2010. Two hours is long for a movie, whereas two hours is usually the tutorial for a modern video game. It’s understandable that the ESRB would be looking for a way to reduce workload. After all, modern JRPGs are 1) over 80 hours long, and 2) increasingly filled with enough innuendo to make even a 14 year old boy go “come ON”.
With that said, automating the process is a mistake. A checklist doesn’t understand the nuances that are going to be put into speech. For example, just the word “fag” is going to set off a flag, but what if the context is someone in England saying they’re going out to smoke a fag (cigarette)? I expect a lot of false positives in this system, both ways. If the system gets a game as more mature than it is, that game will lose sales while the process is put through appeals. If it’s less mature, Fox News in America and News of the World in the UK will have a field day talking about how the ESRB is broken and tainting your children. It’s a political and social minefield.
The NYT article asked “what could go wrong?”. Obviously, that’s a rhetorical question, because the answers are face-slappingly obvious.