The ESRB mobile app rating system: is it missing some teeth?

The first move towards pan-mobile industry age ratings began last week – but I’m not sure it got off to a roaring start.

The move was made by two US bodies: the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB – the body responsible for the self-regulatory model of games age ratings in the USA) and CTIA (“The Wireless Association”). In a nutshell, they have introduced a mechanism by which developers can fill out a questionnaire and then get their app rated on all participating appstores.

So who’s involved in this on the platform/carrier side? Answer:

    • AT&T
    • Microsoft
    • Sprint
    • T-Mobile
    • USA
    • U.S. Cellular
    • Verizon Wireless

Glaring omissions: Apple and Google aren’t joining in . They’re sticking with their own rating systems.

A number of commentators, including me, contribueted to an analysis piece on Tech News World about this – have a look here.

Here’s some additional thoughts from me:

Does this really matter?  Do we need a pan-mobile content rating system?

I’m not aware of any studies so far into the impact of mobile content rating systems on consumers, but in general terms content rating in console and PC games has been a real issue in the games industry from time to time. Clearly mobile apps and content do raise at least some rating issues, both because mobile games are increasingly similar to ‘traditional’games in content and appearance, as well as the wide uptake of mobile games by children.

At present, there is no legally enforced pan mobile rating system in the US, the UK or Europe generally and as a result different carriers/mobile platforms have adopted different standards. It seems the move by CTIA/ESRB is to adopt a pan-industry standard, which could potentially have benefits for both the members (e.g. in terms of cost or industry perception) and consumers. It could also help mobile content creators, like games developers, because harmonised regulation is easier to comply with.  In other words, a pan-mobile rating system could actually be quite helpful for everyone.  Conversely, it’s hard to see how it really helps anyone to help separate systems for Google, Apple, Microsoft, Vodafone etc etc.

However, at the moment it really depends on the carriers/platforms whether to join the system – presumably Apple and Google feel their own systems already protect their consumers adequately.  Besides which, we’re not seeing much move for them to cooperate more generally either (locked as they are in a war for control of the mobile industry!)

Is this the end or the start of something big?

The latter, I think. I think the issue of mobile content ratings, and of child protection regarding mobile content more generally, is definitely likely to become more prominent and to encompass related issues in the future. For example, there are already very early signs of regulators considering whether mobile apps that sell virtual goods or promote advertising should be subjected to scrutiny where children are involved. That said, the mobile apps market is truly global, so it may be a sufficient answers to have either country-by-country legal enforcement or each carrier/platform adopting its own standards. In other words, eventually mobile may have no choice but to agree pan-industry standards, although I don’t think we’re at that stage just yet.

14 comments

  1. Having previously enjoyed many of Scott Steinberg's video's on the likes of GI.biz I'm not sure I agree with him when he says "there is certainly a consumer demand" for this kind of initiative. If there is, I haven't seen much evidence of it.

    From the creation of the Hay's code through to the Video Recordings Act and even the ESRB itself, many content rating systems have been given impetus by an associated moral panic. Others like PEGI are borne out of political will. This on the other hand is an initiative borne more out of self interest. Carriers who still want to be gatekeepers of content and regulators who don't want to be marginalised.

    Issues around advertising and virtual goods / "free to play" that you rightly point out asides, it's difficult to see a moral panic about apps in the near or mid future and I'm minded to think it would be difficult to extend or establish a rating system without one in days gone by, let alone now in a truly global app market with increasingly tech-savvy consumers where the power lies with the platform holders who are big (and in Apple's case intransigent and control freaky) enough to keep rolling as they see fit unless a really big drama pops up.

    It's not that a scalable, no-cost localised, contextual global content rating system isn't possible but it will in my view, take more than a few self-interested entities and the odd politician looking for something to do to create the demand for one. For my money, the app market will go along the same lines as online video (i.e. YouTube) in terms of regulation.

    I'm not popular for this view as you can imagine 🙂

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