The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) intends to apply the age-rating icons now familiar on PC and console games to mobile apps, providing a way for parents to monitor and restrict the games and content their kids download. Five mobile operators and Microsoft have signed on to the new system, but more notable are the players missing: Apple and Google.
Apple and Google’s iTunes App Store and Android Market are responsible for the lion’s share of all app downloads to smartphones and tablets. While both provide controls in their storefronts that allow parents to restrict downloads based on age cutoffs, maturity appropriate levels, or by type of media, they both depend primarily on their developers to provide the context for those ratings. The benefit of the ESRB ratings would be an independent review from an organization parents already trust.
“Parents are overwhelming aware of our ratings, and use them when buying games,” ESRB President Patricia Vance said, speaking Tuesday at a CTIA press conference announcing the new ratings system.
Vance said the ERSB’s review system also takes into account new presence, content sharing and personalization capabilities in mobile software that don’t readily apply to console games. Most parents aren’t just worried about their kids downloading porn or violent games; they’re also terrified Internet predators will take advantage of social media to locate their kids or proposition them through social media.
Once an ESRB rating is granted, developers can carry it across any mobile platform. If a developer doesn’t like the rating granted, it can challenge it. Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular, as well as Microsoft, have all agreed to use the ratings in their mobile storefronts. But the carrier portals account for relatively few downloads in the grand scheme of mobile data. The action is in the platform app stores, so without Apple, and Google (RIM isn’t participating either), ESRB would have relatively little impact. A developer might even look at the ESRB ratings as one more reason to ignore the operators’ stores completely.
Apple and Google have both been invited to participate, but so far they’re content to use the controls they have in place, ESRB officials said. One of the reasons Apple and Google may be on the sidelines for now is the apparent limitations of ESRB’s system. There are hundreds of thousands of mobile apps, and ESRB admits it can’t review all of them. Instead it relies on developers to fill out a detailed questionnaire when submitting an app to any store using the ratings system. An automated engine than instantly spits out a rating, which is applied to that app henceforth. ESRB will directly review the most popular mobile apps and will closely monitor consumer complaints about particular apps. But essentially much of the system is self-policing, just like iTunes and Android Market.
The issue of patrolling app stores is only going to become more important as more kids get online wirelessly. PBS Kids recently conducted a survey of parents with children between two and 10 and found 38 percent of them were passing down older mobile devices to their kids. Another 30 percent felt at least a quarter of the apps of their smartphones and tablets were educational or entertainment apps for their kids.