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ESRB switches to computer automated process for online game ratings

UPDATE: The ESRB press office reached out and offered further explanation on how the new process will work, and this post has now been updated accordingly.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board is the U.S. video game industry’s self-regulatory organization responsible for assigning age ratings to releases and ensuring that all advertising sticks to established guidelines. The industry’s growth in recent years has placed a strain on the ESRB’s ability to rate everything, which is a serious problem when you consider that the big three console makers, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony, don’t allow unrated game releases on their platforms.

As a result of this, the ratings board is implementing a new system designed to automate some of the process, at the same time placing a great deal of trust in game publishers. Starting today, “the main evaluation of hundreds of games each year” will be relegated to a computer-managed questionnaire “meant to gauge every subtle nuance of violence, sexuality, profanity, drug use, gambling and bodily function that could possibly offend anyone,” The New York Times reports.

The idea now is that publishers will fill out this questionnaire and a computer will analyze the responses across multiple categories to assign a proper rating. Presumably there will be a human somewhere late in the process to double-check the results as well, but the bulk of the work will be done by computers. There is an expectation is that game publishers will report on each game’s content honestly, and really, it behooves them to do so considering that an incorrectly rated game will be caught quickly enough by Internet watchdogs.

The ESRB’s director of communications Eliot Mizrachi told Digital Trends, “Each game will be tested within the first 24-48 hours of availability, and there is an enforcement mechanism by which we can affect changes to ratings that were assigned based on incomplete disclosure. There are consequences for failing to properly disclose content during the rating process.”

The questions run through all of the usual content red flags, including profanity, sexuality, gambling, drug use and so on. It seems to be very detailed too, with profanity, for example, being broken down into six categories: minor profanities, epithets, scatological vulgarities, racial obscenities, sexual vulgarisms and “a final category devoted to one particular three-letter word that refers to both a beast of burden and, colloquially, to a part of human anatomy.” There’s also a section on bodily functions, which asks about ” flatulence sounds, ‘whimsical depictions of feces,’ realistically depicted feces and the ‘act of human (or humanlike character) defecation visually depicted.'”

Major retail releases will still be subjected to the ESRB’s traditional review process. Many do not know this, but the large part of that process never actually puts a game controller into the hands of a ratings classifier. Instead, publishers send over video compilations of game footage meant to highlight the most ratings-relevant moments in a forthcoming release. So ultimately, it’s not such a huge stretch for the ESRB to now be trusting publishers to accurately report on the content of a particular game, since that is what’s been happening all along.