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Censorship At Its Finest: H.R. 287, The “Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act”

In the wake of yet another school shooting in the United States of America, the question of how to reduce gun violence in the country has once again risen to prominence. While many have proposed fairly reasonable steps that could be taken to curtail the amount of gun-related homicides, such as increased mental health infrastructure and/or stricter gun control, others have taken the opportunity to attack all manner of things they don’t like. One of the guiltiest parties in this regard has been the NRA, who in their statement on the Sandy Hook shooting managed to blame all sorts of irrelevant shit, including – of course – videogames.

Due probably in part to the NRA’s nonsense, as well as the general hysteria surrounding gun violence right now, videogames have once again become a focal point for those looking to blame violence on something other than systemic problems in their government.  Earlier this week, Vice President Joe Biden met with industry leaders to discuss the issue of violence in games, and there was some serious debate amongst games journalists on whether this was a good idea.

Now, it appears video games will be forced to deal with the government and its attempts to stop gun violence in a far more direct way, and completely against the will of the industry. A new bill has been introduced in the American House of Representatives, titled the “Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act.” Essentially, it will require all games sold in the United States to carry an ESRB rating, and it will be completely illegal to sell unrated games.

From the body of this proposed legislation (which can be read in full here):

It shall be unlawful for any person to ship or otherwise distribute in interstate commerce, or to sell or rent, a video game that does not contain a rating label, in a clear and conspicuous location on the outside packaging of the video game, containing an age-based content rating determined by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.

Now, it may be immediately obvious to many people why that’s a godawful idea. There is no other medium in existence that carries such a restriction, and for good reason; even movies, which have a similar content rating system to the ESRB, can still be sold without that rating if they so desire. Most theatres won’t show unrated movies, but the creators still have the right to distribute the movie in any way they please, whether that be through physical media or through a digital format.

This will no longer be the case for videogames, if this legislation passes. It will be completely illegal to sell any game, either physical or digital, without a rating from the ESRB. There’s no other word for it – that’s censorship, and should be rejected out of hand as a violation of the First Amendment. It prohibits the freedom of expression of game developers, and requires them to obtain consent from a private company before releasing their game on the supposed free market.

That issue of the ESRB being a private company also raises further issues. The House bill in question would give the ESRB – a self-regulated, privately controlled organization – the final say on what is and isn’t appropriate for children. The government is handing over the reigns of moral judgement to a private corporation, and not allowing any alternative ratings systems to even be considered. How can we be sure the ESRB represents the values of the majority of American citizens, when they’re a private company with no accountability to the public?

Some will be quick to point out that the MPAA, the organisation that rates movies, is also a private organization. The key difference between the two situations is that there’s no government requirement that movies receive MPAA ratings. The production houses control both the MPAA and the theatres to an extent that makes having an MPAA rating almost mandatory for a movie that wants to reach a mainstream audience, but there’s no government involvement whatsoever. If someone wanted to form an alternative ratings system and convince theatres to accept their ratings, there would be no law preventing that. Of course, there’s also the fact that the MPAA is in no way a system that we should hope to emulate in the games industry, because it’s a pretty broken system…but that’s a conversation for another time.

As if there wasn’t enough problems with this Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act already, there’s yet more issues beyond those of censorship. Even if your game has no content that anyone would find objectionable, and would pass any ratings standard in the world, there’s still the issue of actually getting it rated in the first place. If no game is allowed to reach the market without a rating, it forces even the most innocuous of games to obtain that rating, and that costs money. Not a particularly small amount of it, either; according to a Joystiq report from a couple years ago, the ESRB charges a $2500 fee when a game is submitted for rating. That’s not an insignificant cost for indie studios.

To summarize: the American government is trying to pass a law that will require you to pay money to – and be subjected to the moral standard of – a private corporation, if you want to release your creative work into the American free market. Every other medium is off the hook, and only videogames will be subject to this demand. If that doesn’t sound like crazy talk to you, then I don’t know what to tell you.

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9 responses to “Censorship At Its Finest: H.R. 287, The “Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act”

  1. Bryn January 18, 2013 at 2:50 AM

    In the UK there is an 18 label, but that means that it is everything greater than 18 so nothing get’s censored. I just hope the ERSB adopts a similar system.

    • Jon January 18, 2013 at 5:59 AM

      The ESRB already has a similar rating: AO which stands for Adults Only. I’m not sure how rating requirements work in other countries in this regards, but it’s a huge breech of the First Amendment if a law requires a game to be rated.

    • Dade January 18, 2013 at 7:17 AM

      The problem would be for indie games who don’t have ratings. They latest CoD game would be just fine, but not a game with a small budget, especially if they are outside the US.

  2. Koji January 18, 2013 at 1:27 PM

    There is zero reason to even worry about these laws. Even if they passed, they would be thrown out as unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court has already declared that video games are a form of art protected under First Amendment freedoms (this was decided just last year), and because of this can’t be censored or blocked from sale. In fact, that was the original complaint that brought about the ruling (a California law trying to ban underage mature game sales).

  3. hellspawn3200 January 19, 2013 at 12:27 AM

    this means that people cant make flash games, and all facebook games would become illegal, since do you think they will pay 2500 USD to get their games rated.

  4. John Monty January 20, 2013 at 5:20 PM

    That Joystiq report is ancient. ESRB ratings are free..http://penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/new-esrb-system-applies-free-instant-ratings-to-content-includes-warnings-f so indie games will have no problems acquiring a rating.As to the censorship issue Koji has it right. Rather than react with hysteria, or climbing on a soap box,we should CALMLY examine the current evidence and THE proceed accordingly.

    • Mitch Bowman January 20, 2013 at 5:27 PM

      I’m not sure why Penny Arcade failed to mention it, but that free rating service is only available to developers who are releasing on XBLA, PSN, or Nintendo’s download services. Steam games and other PC titles are up shit creek still, and will be required to go through the old-fashioned ratings system, which still costs money.

      Source: http://kotaku.com/5954704/esrb-opens-no+cost-ratings-service-for-digitally-distributed-games

      Obviously the big hardware makers have worked out a deal with the ESRB to make their platforms more attractive to indie developers. This brings up another reason why HR287 is such an awful idea: we’ll end up with the same big-studio incumbency and unfairness that the MPAA has created in the movie industry, except this time it will be run by a cartel that has Federal law backing up it’s exclusivity.

      • John Monty January 20, 2013 at 6:14 PM

        Outlook fuzzy. It seems everyone is intent on leaving out pertinent info . From the actual announcement, “This newly streamlined service will first be put into use for downloadable games available from a number of computer and video game platforms including Xbox LIVE Arcade, PlayStation® Network, PlayStation® Vita, PlayStation™ Certified devices, Nintendo® eShop, Wii Shop Channel™ and Windows 8, with other digital content aggregators, online game networks, streaming and download services to follow.” Source ESRB website http://www.esrb.org/about/news/downloads/DRS_Press_Release_10.24.12_F.pdf Things to notice “with other digital content aggregators, online game networks, streaming and download services to follow.” Also noted is that if your game is certified one, on ANY platfor you’re good on ALL platforms. In other words if an indie game maker wishes to make a game for Steam that runs on the windows 8 platform (shudder), then the rating is free and good across all other platforms ie; any Windows, Mac, Linux etc. So Steam is safe as are PC titles because Windows is covered under the “Free Rating” system which is where most indie developers focus. It should be noted that I do NOT agree with this draconian law.

  5. JBevL January 20, 2013 at 9:45 PM

    Even if every game had to have a rating on it it wouldn’t matter. There are already underaged kids who’s parents know the ratings and still let their kids play them. This law would only make producers pay more money without solving the issue that is trying to be resolved.

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