Friday Slide: Should The ESRB Come To The App Store?

Homer Simpson once said, “Everybody is stupid except me” shortly before falling asleep with a cigar in his mouth and setting his house on fire. Indeed, most humans tend to regard their peers as morons who can’t drive (“but I can”), are incapable of keeping their voices down while talking on a cellphone (“but nobody minds hearing MY boring conversation with my wife”), and lack the sense to keep their kids away from adult movies and games (“but MY kids are mature enough to handle Revenge of the Zombie Breasts”).

I don’t believe everybody around me is stupid, but I do know humans are impatient creatures who don’t want to spend a lot of time researching something they don’t know anything about. Maybe that’s why parents aren’t as familiar with the ESRB’s video game content ratings as they are with the MPAA’s ratings for movies. Parents are becoming more familiar with the ESRB’s warning alphabet, but it’s taken years of advertising and education.

Last June, the ESRB expressed interest in rating games sold on the App Store. Kids obviously love to download and play games on the iPhone and iPod Touch, and with the launch of the iPad, Apple’s gaming audience only stands to grow. In the interest of keeping things simple, adopting the ESRB’s ratings system might not be the worst idea.

The App Store currently has a ratings system in place that classifies games as 4+, 9+, 12+ or 17+. The system is pretty self-explanatory, though Apple’s rush to pull “sexy” apps off the App Store in February regardless of rating also illustrates that the company has little faith in the ratings that are currently implemented.

The ESRB has the force of its name behind it, and provides in-depth summaries for a game’s content. That would put parents’ minds at ease (especially if they can restrict game downloads according to the ESRB rating) and hopefully keep Apple from flying off the handle again.

On the other hand, indie developers are wary about working with the ESRB. The organization charges a fee for their ratings, and for a little company, those fees aren’t small change. But last year, ESRB representative Elliot Mizrachi spoke to What They Play about iPhone game ratings and reminded developers that getting a game rated with the ESRB is– and would remain– strictly voluntary.

Anyone with some dim knowledge about the games industry would laugh at the idea of an ESRB rating being “voluntary.” It’s true that developers are technically not obligated to have their games reviewed by the ESRB. It’s also true that no major retailer will carry your game if it lacks that little letter. It’s no wonder indie developers would rather the ESRB keep its nose out of their business.

But the strict rules of ESRB classification mostly apply to brick and mortar stores. If a small development company wanted to opt for Apple’s rating system instead of an ESRB letter, there shouldn’t be anything stopping the game’s sale on the App Store– unless Apple put some new rules in place.

Bringing the ESRB into the App Store would be a bumpy process that might stifle developers if not integrated properly. But if done carefully, the long term benefits would make the transition worthwhile. Videogames are growing up quickly, and its audience is expanding. It’s far better to have a familiar ratings system in place instead of censoring and pulling content.