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Summary:

You may or may not have noticed that among the new features coming in iPhone OS 3.0, due June 17, are parental control settings that prevent users from downloading audio and video material from the iPhone store that comes in above a certain rating, determined by […]

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You may or may not have noticed that among the new features coming in iPhone OS 3.0, due June 17, are parental control settings that prevent users from downloading audio and video material from the iPhone store that comes in above a certain rating, determined by whomever sets the iPhone’s content filtering password. My money’s on tech-savvy teens finding the settings pane and creating a password before their parents even hear about the feature.

One of the problems with the system, considering the current set-up of the iTunes’ store, is that game content is not rated like movie and music is, so if no further changes are made, the filter won’t prevent kids from downloading any game they want. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) would like to do what they already do best, and help make sure that doesn’t happen.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: There is a restrictions pane that applies to apps in iPhone OS 3.0, so in theory Apple is working to implement their own ratings system in order to allow exactly the kind of filtering the ESRB is looking for. Not so. Apple’s standards have yet to be revealed or discussed, and the exact criteria probably won’t be open for public scrutiny even once it does go into effect.

The nice thing about the ESRB is that if nothing else, it is consistent. It has standards (it’s right there in the name!) that have been tried and tested via actual lived experience in the field. You may disagree with some of the metrics they use to determine what qualifies a game as rated “M” for mature, for instance, but at least you know why a game got that rating. And ESRB standards are subject to change as social mores evolve and change.

For Apple, allowing the ESRB to take control of game ratings makes sense for a couple of very good reasons. First, they won’t have to deal with an onslaught of negative press and the hurt feelings of spurned developers whenever an app is rejected for being in poor taste or receives a highly restrictive rating. Second, they can probably redirect the work hours they save as a result of not worrying so much about the nature of content to making sure that apps meet more important quality and polish standards. It’d be nice not to install so much alpha- and beta-quality software based on the assumption that developers will fix bugs in upcoming iterations.

The ESRB isn’t the only one that wants this to go down, either. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) wants to see the same thing happen. ESA CEO Michael Gallagher called for iPhone game ratings while speaking to reporters recently. At this point, I think it’s an inevitability, but there’s still the matter of how it gets implemented. My vote is for bringing in the ESRB, since this is exactly their expertise. What do you think should happen?

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  1. Of course the ESRB wants in, they aren’t handing out ratings for free. According to what I’ve seen it’s $4,000.00 for a standard game. Now of course it would probably be less on the iPhone, but how much less? Anything over a few hundred could scare off the small indy devs. Requiring ratings is a bad idea and increasing barriers to entry makes me a sad panda.

    Now if they want to allow, but not require games to get rated and set the parental controls to make unrated = triple x super nasty violent game so that kids can’t play unrated games, I’d be ok with that.

  2. Microsoft actually has a decent system in place to handle this in regards to their Xbox Live Community Games (soon to be renamed Xbox Live Indie Games) in which before a game is posted to the service it goes through a peer review process were among other issues the game’s content is rated. Sadly Microsoft doesn’t use these ratings for Parental Controls (all Community Games are Unrated and not accessible on accounts with Parental Controls enabled). Perhaps Apple could do something similar either with the developer community or better yet with the user community by letting people who have downloaded the product rate the content in sad product on some sort of sliding scale. Optionally the developers could submit their games to the ESRB for an official rating and hopefully the ESRB will be willing to lower their rates for mobile games (and it would be nice to see them also start rating things like Flash games as well but their current model isn’t very indie or low budget friendly).

  3. And how long does it take the ESRB to rate a game? I have no problem with developers submitting their games on their own time and dime, but NO, Apple should not require games to be rated.

    btw… I’ve heard $3K to rate a game. If these types of devices are the future of gaming, of course the ESRB wants them rated.

  4. Why we need the ESRB? Apple won’t allow anything remotely offensive on the app store anyway.

  5. James Dempsey Thursday, June 11, 2009

    I have to wonder what parent is buying their kid an expensive iPhone AND paying for an uber-expensive AT&T rate plan when the kid is young enough that a parental warning is necessary for a game.

  6. Victor and James are right, but I’m going to say that ESRB just wants to cut out all the money they can from this. They’re seeing it rise, so they’re going to try and grab control of it.

  7. I’m all for rating sytems; it’s voluntary in the movie and games industries, and it helps keep that little freedom the devs have to publish what they want.

    Should the ESRB be the rating system for iApps? Not my decision. Considering Apple already has an approval process, there should be another qualifier, and that could be “level of content”, with 3 to 5 ratings. Could use ESRP like ratings, could use MPAA like ratings (G, PG, PG-13, etc).

    But it essentially comes down to the PARENTS of any child who has one of these devices to either a) know what’s going on it or b) know their kid well enough to know if something nefarious is going on.

    I haven’t seen one thing that would merit a need for a rating…

  8. @James, don’t forget that the iPod Touch is capable of most of the features in these games (aside from any that use GPS, etc.), and the Touch is right around the price ranges for the DSi and PSP.

    As for the ratings, I was personally unaware of the high fees the ESRB charged until reading the comments here. My issue with it would have been that it would further delay and complicate the review process (Apple’s approval process causes enough problems). Combine that with the high fees that they charge, and this seems like a terrible idea. Let Apple govern the ratings. It seems more like something they would do anyway.

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