Nearly every major video-game release in North America receives a rating from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB, a self-regulatory part of the $10 billion-a-year video game industry. Founded in the early 1990s following a series of Congressional hearings on video game violence, the ESRB began to supply game ratings in 1994. Since that time, the industry's official word is that the ratings work, and that it's up to parents to decide what their kids should see and play. But the truth is that the ratings are broken. In fact, they never really worked that well, and more than ever they need to be changed to address the constant changes in electronic entertainment. The current system just confuses and misleads people — follow the link and I'll tell you why.
Before you label me as another anti-game watchdog — the kind that never actually plays video games — let me set the record straight. I've been a game reviewer for more than 15 years. I've met with the major developers and publishers, seen thousands of game demos and even played countless hours of everything from shooters to sims. I'm not against the game industry, and I'm most certainly not pro-censorship. But the fact remains that the industry markets mature content to kids, and it, like big tobacco, really knows what it's doing.
Land of Confusion The problem with the ratings is actually multilayered. The first problem is that the ratings are confusing. There is "E for Everyone," and "T for Teen," and then "Mature," which shouldn't be confused with the infamous "AO" or "Adults Only" rating. Many game creators will say to the press during the early demos, "We mean for this to be a game for adults," but don't expect them to acquiesce if the ESRB gives them an AO. In fact, the AO rating has all but been commandeered by the porn industry for sexually explicit games, while violence seldom gets an AO rating. Publishers fight AO ratings because if a game gets one, most major retailers, like Wal-Mart or Target, won't carry it. It should also be noted that Best Buy believes the ESRB ratings are so confusing that it has begun adding its own set of ratings.
The issue is more complicated because all Mature-rated games are not the same. And notice the use of the word "Mature" instead of "Adult," which helps confuse the matter. Isn't some of the content in a Teen-rated game of a mature nature? More worrisome is that the step up from Teen to Mature is basically as simple as showing blood. No blood, and violent shooter or fighting game may get a Teen rating, but show some blood and you're looking at Mature. Show all sorts of dismemberment with a chainsaw, or walls covered in body parts and you still get the Mature rating. So once you've crossed the line to Mature there really is nowhere to go, violence-wise, so for many developers there's no reason not to go for blood.
Graphics Violence Just as important to consider is that since 1994 games have come along way. The Mature rating was actually created to address Mortal Kombat, a title that by today's standards looks like a cartoon. Graphics have vastly improved since then, as has the ability of storytellers to create rich and deeply plotted games. This has changed not only the content, but also the context of the game's violence. And yet it hardly seems to be considered — at least not enough — when ratings are given. Since 1994 the ESRB has added descriptors to their ratings, but this doesn't clear up the confusion. In fact it makes it worse. Description such as "depiction of blood" or "graphic violence" can mean many things depending on the context.
The next layer to the problem is that Mature-rated games, despite what the industry may say, are at least indirectly being marketed to an audience under 18 years old. According to the Entertainment Software Association, only a small portion of games sold actually receive an M rating. What they aren't so quick to say is that these are the games that typically get a lot of coverage. Any iteration of Grand Theft Auto is going to score the covers of major gaming magazines such as Game Informer or Electronic Gaming Monthly, while family fare (for example, a Nancy Drew game) is lucky to get any coverage at all. In fairness, when EGM puts the latest GTA title on the cover, the game is only in development so the publishers can happily say, "it wasn't rated." But considering that the last five GTA games received a Mature rating, it's very hard to play ignorant.
For Mature Audiences Many in the industry would say that the ratings are just part of the equation, and that at the end of the day it should be up to the parents to monitor what their kids play. This is fair, but as I've mentioned all Mature games are not equal. A Dungeon Siege is a far cry from Postal2, but both received an "M."
And unlike with a film, it's impossible to preview all the content. It's worth noting that one game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, even had its Mature rating revoked by the ESRB because of hidden pornographic content that one diehard fan uncovered. The game has since been re-released minus that content, while the original version had been relabeled AO. And of course that was only after the game had already sold untold number of copies.
BEIJING--Every American company wants to expand into China, but so far none that has is doing that well. Baidu, the Chinese search engine, has a huge lead over Google. Amazon bought a growing local online bookseller to get its business going, but customer service and other issues caused sales to slow.
So what do people here think of U.S. companies? I decided to ask the CNET staff in China and here's what they said:
Apple: The iPod, although it costs a lot by local standards, is very popular, particularly with young consumers. Still, Steve Jobs has never visited China and that rankles people. The view is that he just views China as a market. The iPhone could do well, although it's expensive. Phones that imitate some of its style are already coming out.
Microsoft: Like Americans, Chinese consumers aren't really fond of the big M. For one thing, the software is expensive. A legal copy of Windows XP costs around 1,000 RMB (or $130). That's a monthly salary for some people. Plus, the Chinese think the Zune is ugly. MSN, however, is somewhat popular. The diplomatic overtures that Microsoft has made--Bill Gates inviting China's president to his house and Microsoft's investments in local companies--have helped.
Qualcomm: it's the place everyone wants to work. What? Qualcomm employees get their own offices and the offices are located in the Kerry Center, Beijing's most prestigious address. China Mobile and pretty much any other wireless company is a premier landing.
Google: If you can't land a job in cellular, Google will do. Google, however, isn't succeeding as many thought it might: the search giant only has about 30 percent of the market. Baidu came from nowhere by offering search for MP3s, which then helped them in other areas. Google needs to expand its services. Google's hiring of Kai Fu Lee, heralded in the States as a significant event, hasn't had much of an impact here. Most people shrugged at the name.
YouTube: Everyone knows the Google division, but it's not so popular. It's not in Chinese. Besides, video sites have cropped up like mad.
Yahoo: The company is kind of marginal, even though Jerry Yang is Chinese. People instead wanted to know if Americans knew much about Robin Li, founder of Baidu.
Dell: Dell has done well here, but now it has a reputation for poor customer service and low quality. But the prices are low. Dell also didn't do great PR here on the battery recall: the average buyer thinks the problem was Dell's notebooks, not Sony's battery.
Canadian encryption vendor Certicom yesterday filed a wide-ranging lawsuit against Sony, claiming that many of the products offered by the electronics giant infringe on two Certicom patents. This might sound like business as usual until you realize what's being targeted: AACS and (by extension) the PlayStation 3.
Certicom has done extensive work in elliptic curve cryptography (ECC), and the patents in question build on this work. The patents have already been licensed by groups like the US National Security Agency, which paid $25 million back in 2003 for the right to use 26 Certicom patents, including the two in the Sony case. Now, Certicom wants Sony to pay up, claiming that encryption present in several key Sony technologies violates Certicom patents on "Strengthened public key protocol" and "Digital signatures on a Smartcard."
The biggest charge is that the encryption in AACS itself is infringing. The practical implications of this claim are huge; AACS is included in Sony's Blu-ray players, PlayStation 3, and Blu-ray and PS3 discs. Certicom says Sony needs to take out a license for all of these uses.
In addition, the company claims that the Digital Transmission Content Protection (DTCP) scheme is also infringing, and it seeks damages for every Sony i.LINK (IEEE 1394) implementation that uses DTCP and every Sony product that uses DTCP-IP. This includes all VAIO computers with i.LINK ports along with a whole host of Sony TVs and a few DVD players; one home theater receiver is even on the list.