The little E's, T's, and M's that appear on the covers of video games get there the old-fashioned way: People working for the Entertainment Software Rating Board look at the games, decide how gory, sexy, or potty-mouthed they are, and bestow an age-appropriate rating accordingly.
That was then. This is now. The ratings board recently begin introducing computers to the job of deciding whether a game is appropriate for Everyone, for Teens or for Mature gamers (meaning older than 16). To do this the organization has written a program designed to replicate the ingrained cultural norms and predilections of the everyday American consumer, at least when it comes to what is appropriate for children and what isn't.
Faced with an explosion in the number of games being released online, the board plans to announce that the main evaluation of hundreds of games each year will be based not on direct human judgment but instead on a detailed digital questionnaire meant to gauge every subtle nuance of violence, sexuality, profanity, drug use, gambling, and bodily function that could possibly offend anyone.
The questionnaire, to be filled out by a game's makers (with penalties for nondisclosure), is like a psychological inquest into the depths of all the things our culture considers potentially unwholesome.
Offensive language, for instance, is broken down into six subcategories: minor profanities, epithets, scatological vulgarities, racial obscenities, sexual vulgarisms, and a final category devoted to one particular three-letter word that refers to a beast of burden and, colloquially, to a part of human anatomy. (Interestingly, the survey does not ask about religious slurs, perhaps because those are relatively rare in popular Western culture.)
The sexuality category is fairly straightforward -- basically, if there's sex, how much of it can you actually see? -- as are the sections on gambling and drugs. And surely every consumer is grateful that the portion on bodily functions makes a point to ask separately about flatulence sounds: "whimsical depictions of feces," realistically depicted feces, and the "act of human (or humanlike character) defecation visually depicted."
This is the sort of stuff that major international corporations generally like to know about before they offer a mass-market media product for sale to the world.
As the Supreme Court prepares to release its potentially groundbreaking decision on a California law that intends to regulate the sale of video games, it might bear remembering that Justice Potter Stewart found it impossible to reduce obscenity to a definition, declaring, "I know it when I see it."
And yet in this digital age it is inevitable perhaps that a group that is paid to sort creative entertainment endeavors into neat and tidy categories based on content would eventually start outsourcing its mission to computers. After all, major companies, including banks, credit-rating agencies, Amazon.com, Netflix, and Google, have made it their business to reduce consumer behavior to an algorithm. For video games, the publishers' answers to the questionnaire will determine the rating.
The ratings board was founded in 1994 by the video game industry's main trade organization in an effort to mimic Hollywood's popular system for rating big-studio films. Major retailers require a video game to have a board rating before they will stock it, just as major theater chains refuse to screen films that have not been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Perhaps even more important, the big global game console makers -- Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony -- won't allow a game on their systems that has not been rated.
And yet the big growth in video games these days is on systems in which the games are not rated by age category: mobile phones and social networks like Facebook. Instead, those systems are under the exclusive control of the companies that run them, and Apple and Facebook have not developed detailed age-rating schemes of their own.
So the game rating board is trying to come up with a system that allows it to quickly, reliably, and consistently rate the thousands of games that are appearing each year on digital devices. In an interview the board's president, Patricia Vance, refused to comment on any negotiations with Apple, Facebook, or other companies about adopting the ratings.
Last year the board rated about 1,600 games, of which up to 30 percent were only online. A few years ago there were almost no online games to review. By contrast, the motion picture board considers around 850 movies a year. (And most video games are far longer than the average film.)
The human game classifiers who will soon be ceding work to machines don't actually play the games. Instead they watch a DVD submitted by a game's publisher that is supposed to include the raunchiest and most violent scenes, if any. So they have not been experiencing games as they are played.
This week the board intends to start using the new computerized system for games released online on systems controlled by Microsoft (Xbox Live), Sony (PlayStation Network), and Nintendo (Wii and DSi Shop). That's about 650 games a year. The board says that publishers' answers to the digital questionnaire will determine a game's rating and that a human won't review it until after the game is out the door.
As stated in a draft of the board's news release, "All games rated via this new process will be tested by ESRB staff shortly after they are made publicly available to verify that disclosure was complete and accurate."
What could possibly go wrong?
Major retail games -- the ones advertised on television and stocked by Walmart -- still will be evaluated by real people. For now.