Games and Liberty Part II: ESRB, PEGI, and CERO
Those of us who want liberty most also want, and feel at ease with, accountability. Critics dismiss the calls for liberty as petulance – assuming we don’t want to be told what to do so we can carouse around like fools. Rather, we’ve come to the conclusion that fools carouse around the capital and have a far away view of what we should be doing anyway.
The government has a responsibility to defend the liberty of its citizens, and has authority to place restrictions (in the forms of just laws) to that end only. Otherwise it has no right to tell you what to do.
Moreover, often the government isn’t smart enough to know what you ought to be doing anyway. At the state and local level there can be greater awareness, but even then we should be cautious. At the federal level, the less that is regulated and legislated the better. And in almost all cases, the people, when organized and educated, have a much better idea of which fair practices should be established and how order should be maintained.
But still, the same criticisms arise repeatedly from similar objectors – that especially in business, there must be regulation, and standards must be set. The caveat is this – that the libertarian agrees regulations, standards and fair practices should be established, only not by the government.
In America, like elsewhere, the government is more easily penetrated by lobbyists and special interest groups than anywhere else. This is largely because our federal government is far too powerful, but also because it often specializes in favoring one group over another. With that kind of track record, they should be the last place for establishing standards and fair practices.
In South Korea, the Korea Media Rating Board used to rate video games, until 2006 when they rated Sea Story, a gambling game, appropriate for all audiences. The reason they did that is because influential figures in the ruling party had stakes in the company releasing the game, and were given gift certificates for gambling machines.
The South Korean government thought the failure of their own organization was so bad, they replaced it with another government organization. Just the same tired attempts at a solution being recycled, ignoring past failures.
The appropriate answer is consumer groups, and self regulatory associations. Consumer groups (sometimes called watchdog groups) are organizations that advocate for consumer rights, monitor an industry, and call out harmful or unfair behavior. These groups gain credibility by being accurate, and fair. With knowledge available to consumers about who will provide them the best experience, and most fair transaction, competition and choice will drive up quality, drive out bad business, or both.
Similarly, self-regulatory organizations are established by members of the industry to organize, regulate, and set standards, to the benefit of the industry as a whole, and address concerns of consumers.
In the video game industry, one concern is lurid content in games, especially depicting sex, nudity, or violence. Last week I briefly examined the response to such content in games being used by Australia – the Australian Classifications Board. I primarily focused on how that government effort is an attack on personal liberty, because it restricts adults from viewing whatever content they choose. It’s important that be the starting point, because it is most crucial.
But it is also important to note that the statist approach is failing. People in Australia are still getting games that have been refused classification, and consequently that are not legally sold in retail stores. They are mainly obtaining these games through online piracy, intensifying an existing (and legitimate) problem because of overbearing government censorship.
Sometimes Australians will buy games online from retailers outside the country, and have them shipped. Most people report success doing this, but because it is technically illegal to import a banned product, consumers risk fines, confiscation, and having the product they paid for destroyed.
All that considered, people are still getting banned games. Never mind for a moment that Australia shouldn’t be preventing adults from playing certain games, just considered that if it’s their aim they are failing at it anyway.
But let’s say that is it warranted to limit the access of a product, perhaps because we want to limit the access children have to lurid content. That is a decision for parents and other concerned citizens, not government. If enough parents, who are consumers buying games for their children, decide they would like to put in place a measure to identify content inappropriate for certain age groups, and limit the sale of said content to children, that’s best achieved by dealing directly with the industry through a consumer group, or petitioning for a self-regulatory group.
The best results have been achieved by non-governmental, self-regulatory groups, recognizing concerns of consumers about content available to minors, and creating informative rating systems, then enforcing appropriate sales practices. Briefly, I’d like to examine two good examples of this, and one mixed result.
PEGI (Pan European Game Information) has an international scope that no other video game rating system has. It’s proven to be the most effective form of rating games in over 30 countries.
PEGI was started by the ISFE (Interactive Software Federation of Europe), a group that was founded by software trade associations in the UK, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, but now includes membership from all the major publishers (Activision, EA, Ubisoft, etc). A group made up of industry leaders, not government, has been recognized, even by government, as the successful means of rating.
Toine Manders, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, expressed the view of parliament in 2009, when considering protection of consumers by PEGI:
the PEGI system for rating games is an important tool which has improved transparency for consumers, especially parents, when buying games by enabling them to make a considered choice as to whether a game is suitable for children.
A study by Nielsen Games found 93% of those surveyed recognized the PEGI age ratings (“Video gamers in Europe — 2008”; 6000 surveyed, ages 16-49, in 15 EU countries).
This is what an appropriate rating system should achieve — recognition, dissemination of information, and serving as a tool for concerned buyers, primarily parents. It’s effective, and moreover accepted, as opposed to heavy handed government approaches like Australia’s that have been balked at, ignored, and violated repeatedly.
In the early 90s, American Senator and historical opponent of liberty Joe Lieberman, along with fellow Senator Herb Kohl, led hearings in the Senate about the violence in games, and their perception that it was corrupting society.
Different rating systems emerged, but the one that became successful in warding off threats from Congress to impose a government system came from the IDSA (Interactive Digital Software Association; now known as the ESA, or Entertainment Software Association), which proposed the ESRB.
Although the ESRB has endured criticism, evidence suggests it is effective. In June 2012 the Peter D. Hart Research Associates released a survey showing 85% of parents surveyed were aware of the ratings system, and 70% regularly consulted ratings before deciding which games to buy for their children.
Retailers voluntarily choose not to stock games rated Adults Only, which is a debatable decision in itself, but at least one that can be attributed to perception of consumer interest, and self interest on the part of the retailers. I’d personally prefer to see the AO rating be useable (and not equivalent to a ban), but that will take a change in culture. Once said change in culture occurs, repealing a voluntary business practice by retailers is much simpler than repealing legislation.
Legislation such as the California’s AB 1179, introduced by California State Senator Leland Yee in 2005. The ESA challenged the law in District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before the case was brought before the Supreme Court, which upheld findings that the law was unconstitutional.
Although the most often quoted section of the 92-page Supreme Court ruling is the section directly above the one I’m going to include in this article, I think the passage below is the most moving, and most relevant.
Under our Constitution, “esthetic and moral judgments about art and literature . . . are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.” And whatever the challenges of applying the Constitution to ever-advancing technology, “the basic principles of freedom of speech and the press, like the First Amendment’s command, do not vary” when a new and different medium for communication appears.
The most basic of those principles is this: “[A]s a general matter, . . . government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.”
And even more to the point of why government should stay out of matters like classifying and rating art or pastime — the ruling made it clear there is no problem in and of itself with any content being voluntarily consumed:
The State must specifically identify an “actual problem” in need of solving, and the curtailment of free speech must be actually necessary to the solution. That is a demanding standard. “It is rare that a regulation restricting speech because of its content will ever be permissible.”
In America, where many of our liberties come under attack more and more, it’s encouraging to know that principles like the ones seen in these two passages are still active in our government.
So often video games are accused of contributing to an increase in violence. There are at least as many studies refuting that claim as there are studies supporting it, but to cite the Supreme Court ruling in the U.S. — “Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively. Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.”
There is tremendous evidence supporting the Supreme Court’s view in Japan, where they have one of the lowest homicide and attempted homicide rates in the world. They also have lots of young people playing games. Japan’s low crime rate and low homicide rate are of course the result of many factors, but it’s fair to say voluntary measures to educate the public on content of games hasn’t hurt matters. Again, they don’t have a governmental ratings board, but instead a self regulatory group that has enacted an effective ratings system.
CERO (Computer Entertainment Ratings Organization) was established in 2002 as part of the Computer Entertainment Supplier’s Association (CESA) to create a rating system for Japanese publishers and retailers.
The success of CERO and the remarkable record of safety in Japan was ignored in 2005 when the Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures banned the sale of Grand Theft Auto III to anyone under the age of 18. This prompted CESA to overhaul CERO in 2006, hoping to enact a voluntary system among retailers to limit sale of certain games (similar to the effect of the AO rating in America). Changes were made to CERO that brought some benefit, but unfortunately more harm.
The new rating labels allowed for a D-rating, marking games intended for ages 17 and up, a classification that didn’t exist before, as the prior ratings system went from CERO 15 to CERO 18. It also added the Z rating, which was equivalent to CERO 18, but unfortunately the changes coincided with federal government starting to regulate sale of Z-rated games.
In 2005, then CESA distribution committee chief Kiyoshi Komatsu said, “These self-regulation proposals have been accepted by 95 percent of retailers,” and that voluntary action would have been preferable to government legislation. While I’d still prefer a cultural change that welcomes appropriate sale and marketing of games rated for adults, that’s always easier without government intervention.
CERO is an example of a ratings system that has tried to do the right things, only to be preempted and interfered with by government. It’s still offering a better solution than in places like Australia or South Korea, but less government would ultimately be better for the industry and consumers.
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