In a panel held today at the MI6 Game Marketing Conference in San Francisco, members from various quarters of the industry discussed problems - and some solutions - around regulation and rating of video game content.
Present were Entertainment Software Ratings Board president Patricia Vance, Microsoft XNA Community Game Platform general manager Boyd Multerer, and Sony Computer Entertainment America legal and support marketing representative Tony Justman. Newsweek's N'Gai Croal moderated the session.
The difficulty of moderating online content was a strong theme throughout the discussion. Vance noted that online and user-created content is still a thorny area.
"When we get into areas like user-created content, viral marketing, and things like that, it gets difficult for us as a self-regulated body," she said. "So what we often do is bring some of these ideas to the attention of industry heads, so that they can advise and help figure out how to establish self-policing tactics and guidelines for themselves."
Self-policing Vs. Self-regulating
Croal raised the distinction between self-regulating and self-policing, questioning how the industry will achieve the latter.
Currently, the ESRB includes a warning on online-enabled games indicating that multiplayer experiences are not ESRB-rated. "We're much more focused on consumer education than regulation," added Vance, though standard ESRB rules still apply to new developer-released downloadable content, which must adhere to the game's original rating.
"Games are different from movies and TV," she went on. "They're a hybrid. I think a lot of the things parents are learning about the online world apply to games, but I don't think they've learned as much as they should."
Multerer noted that companies have little control over content once creation is put in the hands of the gamers themselves. "What does it mean to us if someone makes [an XNA] game with questionable content?" he asked. "How do we make sure kids and parents are getting what they expect, and what do we do if they're not? Right now we're trying to get [users] to regulate themselves."
He described a system for the XNA Community Game Platform by which amateur developers rate their own games' content. "They have sliders that show how much violence, how much language is in the game," he explained. "Other developers rate the game and see if they're correct in their assessment. If there's much dissention, we kick it back and try to make them re-rate it. We can't trust everyone to say what their game is. But with the peers, we should end up with a good idea of what the game actually contains."
Wide Spectrums of Challenges
Justman pointed out that there are many types of user-created content, some more malleable than others; he brought up two upcoming PlayStation Network games to illustrate his point.
allows altered code, so that's a challenge, but Echochrome
doesn't allow new content, just alteration of existing elements," he said.
He then addressed issues inherent to today's global market: "In the States, the three big problems are sex, language, and violence, in that order. In Europe, it's flipped. So it's hard to find a common solution across the globe with a worldwide studio like Sony."
"How do you tackle something like people drawing penises in Echochrome
?" inquired Croal.
, I'm not sure," admitted Justman. "For me, I think much - if not half - of the solution comes from the developer side. The community is what keeps players there, so if that creates something that self-polices and is effective, as we've seen in Second Life
and other sites, then that's great. In Home
, that might be possible. We will have grief-prevention systems and feedback to prevent things from happening."
Letting the Industry Take Charge
Vance said a visual interface ("like a button that you can click on when you're online if you're being cyber-bullied, or harassed") would be of great help to players.
She stressed that such solutions are not dependent on her organization. "I don't think it matters if the ESRB is known as the company behind that," said Vance. "I think a lot of companies, like Microsoft and Sony, are doing good jobs of addressing those issues. I think it's important to get individual members of our industry out there promoting internet safety."
Croal extended his previous hypothetical phallic scenario to a situation where creators might share their games only with known friends. "If I'm on the XNA Creators Club, and I just want to share it with my friends only and not the public, can I share my Mickey Mouse penis game?"
Boyd assuaged his worries, noting that only players who publish their creations to everyone will have to go through the rating system.
The Power of the Law
Finally, Justman seemed confident in the correcting power of legal action to work out kinks in the system along the way. Responding to a question from Croal about profanity in karaoke game SingStar
, he said, "Luckily, that's someone else in my department's problem."
"All it'll take is a few well-publicized lawsuits to get us on the right track," he added. "We'll learn as we go."