Commentary

Why A Government Ratings System Would Be Less Than Grade AA

Every once in a while, the specter of universal ratings for multiple content forms -- TV, video games, mobile content, and the like -- rears up in Washington and needs to be put down. Late last week, it appeared once again, with the Federal Communications Commission starting its inquiry after delivering a report to Congress about media blocking technologies (presumably, the media blocking technologies reported upon could be keyed to work with a universal ratings system -- which is the reason why movies aren't on the list).

The main objection being raised to this universal ratings system and its enforcement by law is that it would violate media companies' First Amendment rights. But this objection -- while an important one -- leaves aside another key question about universal ratings for multiple content types. Is it even possible to rate video games on the same scale as an iBeer iPhone app and a T-Pain ringtone? It also isn't clear at all what problem these universal ratings are supposed to be addressing. The Entertainment Software Association's SVP for communications and industry affairs described universal ratings as "a solution in search of a problem," and said that they would only confuse consumers.

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And that's the real crux: The ratings the ESRB has produced are clear, and more important, well-known and understood -- a 2008 study showed that 86% of parents with children who play video games are aware of the ratings, and 78% say they regularly check them before purchasing a game for their kids. Putting the ratings system in the hands of the government and mandating participation isn't likely to increase that figure -- in fact, it's far more likely that a government-mandated system would be less well-known. The government ratings of other products that we use on a daily basis are far, far more opaque than the ESRB's rating system -- can anyone who reads this column tell me the difference between USDA Choice and USDA Prime beef? Or what the difference between a 4-star and a 5-star government crash test rating is for your car? Or how much better AA-grade cheddar cheese is than A-grade? Each government-run ratings system is more opaque than the last, and if the FCC gets its hands on video game rating, good luck telling the difference between "Gears of War" and "Guitar Hero."

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