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A Solution to Perpetual Game Ratings Controversy Might Soon be Possible

For quite some time, the gaming industry as a whole has struggled with the efficacy of its game content rating system. Here's why, and how a future new ratings-control ecosystem could work.

Andrej Kovacevic, Blogger

July 22, 2020

4 Min Read

For quite some time, the gaming industry as a whole has struggled with the efficacy of its game content rating system. That system, managed by the ESRB (and PEGI in the EU), is a voluntary one; and one that comes with no built-in enforcement mechanisms. That means parents and retailers are left to their own devices when trying to manage who gets to buy or play which game.

For the industry itself, that's quite convenient. It allows studios to churn out whatever kind of games they wish, with little in the way of responsibility for who consumes them. The trouble with that, of course, is that it leaves the industry perpetually on the edge of legislative intervention every time a controversy breaks out over the latest 'offensive' game. The solution to this crisis-in-waiting may be about to arrive in the form of biometric controls. Here's why, and how a future new ratings-control ecosystem could work.

Limitations of Current-Generation Access Controls

There are, of course, access controls built into today's flagship gaming consoles. But if you ask the average parent, they're too inflexible to be of any real-world use. Most use on-device passcodes to limit which games can launch, based on selectable rating thresholds. They offer very little in the way of granular controls, leading to an endless back-and-forth between kids and parents over each new game that comes along.

They also do nothing to address the retail part of the equation. Retailers are forced to try and control purchases based on the ratings, even if it's inappropriate. For example, it's quite common for older teens to be allowed access to 'M' rated games by their parents or guardians (and no, this is not a referendum on that particular decision), but that doesn't make it possible for them to go out and buy one.

Where Biometrics Come In

But what if there were a unified system that could take the place of the current voluntary rating enforcement that could control both purchases and on-console game launches? That's exactly what biometrics could enable, depending on how they're used. And we may be nearing the point that such a system is feasible.

Sony, for its part, patented a design that seems to indicate biometric features will be a part of the PS5's controllers. Microsoft, the makers of the Xbox, has a long history of including biometric features on their platform. And there's every reason to believe that Nintendo will follow suit if it looks like the technology's going mainstream.

With the technology in place, it wouldn't take much to create an access control system that can allow or deny access to launch games, buy games, and even make in-game purchases based on biometric security. And there's already precedent for biometrics being used in this way. Companies like Verificient are already applying it to age-restricted casino gaming platforms, where it's being used to prevent underage players and even provide added barriers to keep gaming-related transactions secure and fraud-free. And if biometrics can succeed in a highly-regulated industry like that, it should be a breeze to use it for general gaming controls.

How it Could Work

Imagine, for example, that the ESRB and its international siblings collaborated on a cloud platform that allowed parents and children to register their biometric data in a voluntary access control database. That data could then enable cross-platform parental controls over every aspect of the gaming experience.

Every console that participates would gain per-title permissions that parents could control from a smartphone app, and every retail store could use simple biometric hardware (fingerprint, facial recognition) to determine who could buy which game. The console companies could also use the data to control digital and in-game purchases too. It would be a single-platform approach to what's been a thorny industry problem for decades.

The Bottom Line

Having a universal access control system based on biometrics that's easy for parents to use and administer would be a game-changer for the industry. It would, in one fell swoop, end the constant uncertainty over the efficacy of the rating system. It would also put the tools to exercise more precise controls into the hands of those who need them, and remove any need for game developers to worry about their games reaching inappropriate audiences.

The result would be unprecedented creative flexibility for game designers, less liability for retailers, and fewer incidents of controversy fueled by angry consumers. And the technology to do it already exists and is making its way into consoles. The only real question left is how long it's going to take for the industry to put the pieces together into a workable system.

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