ESRB and CTIA to Release Rating System for Mobile Games

ESRBCTIA previously issued a press release stating that “CTIA-The Wireless Association® will announce a mobile application rating system with the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Applications will be rated based on age-appropriateness of their content and context. The details of the mobile application rating system will be released at the press announcement.”

On Tuesday, November 29, in Washington, D.C., speakers Senator Kelly Ayotte, Senator Mark Pryor, CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent, and ESRB President Patricia Vance announced the rating system. App developers will fill out a questionnaire to generate a rating from 6+ to 18+. Much like the other rating systems by the ESRB, app ratings will take into account content such as violence, sex, language and substance use; as well as features such as the presence of user-generated content, location-sharing, and third-party data sharing. The process will be free of charge to developers, and the ESRB will be responsible for checking ratings and responding to user complaints about ratings.

AT&T, Microsoft, Sprint, T-Mobile USA, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless have all offered support for this new ratings system. Missing from this list of supporters are Apple and Android, two of the largest mobile app markets. “We’ve put a lot of effort into Android Market’s rating system, which now works well globally,” said Google spokesperson Christopher Katsaros. “While we support other systems, we think it’s best for Android users and developers to stick with Android’s existing ratings.” Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr declined to comment.

Currently, no consistent ratings system exists; however, many app stores like Apple’s offer their own ratings system to help people determine age appropriateness. Apple (opens in iTunes) currently offers an age-based rating system, with applications coming in at 4+ containing “no objectionable material” and 17+ requiring the person to be at least seventeen years old in order to purchase an app that may contain “frequent and intense offensive language; frequent and intense cartoon, fantasy, or realistic violence; and frequent and intense mature, horror, and suggestive themes; plus sexual content, nudity, alcohol, tobacco, and drugs which may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17.” The Android Market, however, has opted for self-ratings according to certain criteria, with ratings ranging from “Everyone” to “High Maturity.”

CTIA is an international organization representing the wireless communications industry. The ESRB is a non-profit, self-regulatory body that independently assigns computer and video game content ratings, enforces advertising guidelines, and helps ensure responsible online privacy practices for the interactive entertainment software industry.

Analysis: I’m kind of surprised this hasn’t happened already. Mobile gaming has been big for a while. What has probably kept this from happening so far is that the ESRB doesn’t rate console download games; instead, the publishers answer a questionnaire which determines their rating. And that’s exactly what this rating system is going to be like. This kind of self-regulation seems to have been working for XBLA, Wii/DSi Shop, and the PlayStation Store, and it seems to have been working for the mobile industry as well even without the consistent systems. There really hasn’t been an impetus to change, so I’m kind of surprised the ESRB has even bothered.

As I mention in my feature on video game aggression, the ESRB was created in 1994 to help alleviate the problem of children getting games they shouldn’t be getting (and to help prevent the government from getting involved in regulation). As anyone who has been to Wal-Mart knows, however, it’s not enforced as much as it probably should be, assuming the ratings work in the first place. If they do work, one hopes that, through the mobile market, there’s a better way to enforce it. Otherwise, it’s going to be pretty much useless since kids have a lot more power over their own technology now than they did in 1994 or even 2000. Kids can lie about how old they are when setting up their accounts, and if there’s an option for parental permission on these markets, it’ll be easy enough to forge, more than likely. Keep in mind also that this rating system will not be mandatory. Apple, Android, and anyone else will need to be convinced to discard their own rating system in favor of this one, which doesn’t look like is going to happen anytime soon. Since they’ve been working well so far, that seems like it’s going to be an uphill struggle for CTIA and ESRB to get two of the largest mobile app markets to play along.

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