Former ESRB rater Jerry Bonner has published a new opinion piece in consumer magazine EGM alleging internal issues at the board including management-led ratings changes, parity problems, and a culture of secrecy.
In an article in the latest issue of Ziff Davis' EGM magazine, Bonner expressed a litany of perceived issues, from his perspective, on his 6-month stay as an anonymous game rater at the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. The ESRB is an industry-funded independent ratings organization, much like the MPAA for the film industry.
In particular, Bonner noted: "It was my understanding when I was hired that I would actually be rating games. Unfortunately that wasn't the case in some instances."
He continued, "The raters were viewed as more of an electoral college, and our ratings were not always the final ones issued. Sometimes, we'd see a full letter rating change (a game we gave an M would be lowered to a T, for example, or a T raised to an M)."
Elaborating on the changes, Bonner said, "Other times it would be a simple content-descriptor change (we would give a game the "mild cartoon violence" descriptor and it would be changed to "comic mischief"). To be fair, if/when our ratings were altered, it was usually just a simple content-descriptor change. But when this would happen, we were rarely given a sufficient explanation as to why the rating was tweaked."
GamePolitics has further extracts
from the interview, in which Bonner discusses the fact that game raters do not actually play the games, merely watch submitted video, suggesting that staffing-up to have all games be played through would be a better route for the ESRB to go. He also claims that sequels are frequently assigned the same or similar ratings as their predecessors with minimal review.
In addition, Bonner claims there is a destructive culture of secrecy at the ESRB: "I used to tell a joke while working at the ESRB that their acronym should be changed to CIA… Realistically, there is nothing to hide at the ESRB. Everything was above board as far as I could tell… But by acting in a secretive, mysterious way, the ESRB creates an appearance of impropriety."
The comments drew a strong response from ESRB president Patricia Vance in the same EGM interview. In the brief riposte, she calls Bonner's tenure with the board "unique and limited," and says the article contains "numerous misleading statements, factual inaccuracies, and misrepresentations."
In particular, responding to the allegations of ratings being changed, she notes: "We highly value our raters' recommendations, and their opinions are always the principal determining factor when assigning a rating. But they cannot be the sole criteria on which a rating is based. To avoid confusing parents, consistency in how age ratings or content descriptors are assigned for similar content must be part of the process."
Vance added: "In a rare case when an adjustment is made to a particular recommendation from our raters, it is done only when it is obvious that [one of] their findings contradicts previous ratings for similar content, does not reflect cultural norms that have been established through publc-opinion research, or would cause consumers to question the reliability of [our] ratings information."
She concludes, as part of the article available in the April 2008 issue
of EGM magazine: "At the end of the day, ESRB stands behind each rating it assigns, and the process by which it assigns those ratings."