ESRB ratings for digital games to be automated

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is switching to a questionnaire to assign ratings to online games, the New York Times reports. Starting this week, digital games like those released on Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, WiiWare, and DSiWare, will let publishers answer an automated set of questions to determine the content of their games.

The questions are fairly detailed. One example offered, for offensive language, is split into minor profanities, epithets, scatological vulgarities, racial obscenities, sexual vulgarisms, and oddly enough, the word "ass." Other vices like sexuality, drugs, and gambling will be determined by how prominently the acts are portrayed.

The ESRB says that official staff will play these games after they are released to assure that the ratings were based on accurate answers. It will also be issuing penalties for nondisclosure of certain content, and could presumably re-rate a game that's been improperly categorized.

For now, the system is only for digitally-delivered games, and boxed retail titles will still be reviewed via DVD by ESRB staff as always. The board has been hard-pressed to rate all the games it receives, and this would relieve about 30% the games it has to personally review before release.

The New York Times speculates that the move is intended to bring markets like mobile and Facebook games under the ESRB umbrella, which currently have developed their own independent ratings system. ESRB president Patricia Vance declined to comment on the possibility.

Interestingly, this comes at a time when game publishers are preparing for a landmark Supreme Court decision on whether states can restrict the sale of boxed retail products to minors. The SCOTUS decision could come at any time, and could set a precedent for other state laws.