Archive for September, 2009

Quasi-Censorship – Effects of Ratings on Online Games

Just today it came out that Blizzard actually self-censored content in Europe as part of an event that happens annually called Brewfest.
This event has been around for a few years now and it is very common that players across regions, specifically between US and Europe, as their content releases within a day and are fairly close culturally, compare their content.
It was noted early on that two quests as part of the event were available in the US but not EU. After long speculation by players in Europe that this is a bug, a CM of Blizzard finally spilled the beans:

The Brewfest quests ‘Pink Elekks On Parade’ and ‘Catch the Wild Wolpertinger!’ were removed to ensure that World of Warcraft contains content that complies with regional game rating requirements.

http://forums.wow-europe.com/thread.html?topicId=10921022886&pageNo=1&sid=1#12

So these quests were not included for European players because Blizzard wanted to protect its rating.

Now players are confused because the quests in question seem quite innocent:

Pink Elekks on Parade
Catch the Wild Wolpertinger!

and have been available in previous years. The confusion is exasperated by the fact that many players can easily come up with range of
content that is much more objectionable than these two quests, including depiction of murder, torture of humans and animals, scenes of temporary suicide and more.

So what happened here? Well for one the PEGI system is much younger than the American counterpart ESRB. The endorsement of the EU parlament for EU member nations to adopt PEGI only went out in January of 2009 (i.e. this year and after WoW Wrath of the Lich King launched).
WoW’s ESRB rating is T for Teen and WoW’s PEGI rating is 11/12+ (11 in Finland). So let’s have a look at the rating texts of these two of the current and the next higher category in the rating:

ESRB:

TEEN (age 13+)
Titles rated T (Teen) have content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language.

MATURE (17+)
Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.

PEGI:

PEGI 12
Videogames that show violence of a slightly more graphic nature towards fantasy character and/or non graphic violence towards human-looking characters or recognisable animals, as well as videogames that show nudity of a slightly more graphic nature would fall in this age category. Any bad language in this category must be mild and fall short of sexual expletives.

PEGI 16
This rating is applied once the depiction of violence (or sexual activity) reaches a stage that looks the same as would be expected in real life. More extreme bad language, the concept of the use of tobacco and drugs and the depiction of criminal activities can be content of games that are rated 16+.

The crucial distinction here is that ESRB does not make a distinction in depiction of drug use (legal or illegal) at Teen rating, while PEGI does.

Posters in the WoW forum have various reactions, calling PEGI broken, or blaming Blizzard.

I am not really interested in this, rather I’m interested in the dynamics and how to handle this differently.

For example WoW does contain a quest that asks the players to torture baby gorillas. I personally find this more objectionable than the zapping of pink elekks while drunk for a 13 year old. Yet oddly Blizzard feels that self-policing on the latter is more crucial than the former, but let me back off for a second.

The way rating systems work is that they are meant to be self-imposed by the industry (hence not censorship). Critics of this, going back to the parental advisory controversy of the 80s always felt that the problem is that it is effective censorship or self-imposed censorship.

This example illustrates this nicely. All European players are barred from seeing this content, even though it is not objectionable for a large section of the gamer population, and indeed within their age bracket it would be allowable within the system. But because the rating system defines a high barrier applied to everybody it will block content that would be fine for certain eyes.

Blizzard does not really have a full choice here either. They could say “screw PEGI” but these self-regulatory bodies come with penalty mechanisms for companies that do not comply to the rating they have gotten. And clearly not having a rating may not get the game shelved at all!

Originally the idea of these self-regulatory labels were to give Parents a choice whether or not they want their kids exposed to this. Now in this case clearly this is not what is happening. In fact the choice is removed for everybody, more lenient parents, grown-ups and so forth. The content is indeed fully censored to comply with the rating system.

Certainly it is bizzare to not be able to zap pink Elekks but have it be OK to kill, torture and enslave humans. This too goes back to the arguments brought by people like Frank Zappa, Dee Snider and John Denver advocating against the parental advisory labeling. Where the line is, can be up to interpretation and this interpretation can have rather odd, unintuitive outcomes. For example Dee Snider was confronted in the Senate Hearings on the topic with supposed Sado-Masochistic content in lyrics of a song of his band Twisted Sister. In fact the lyrics were about the surgery experience of a group member. Dee Snider stated that in fact the S&M interpretation was in the mind of Tipper Gore, a parental control advocate, rather than actually in the lyrics. The same interpretation pitfall applies here. Which content is indeed appropriate for kids. The right answer likely is, that for the most part that should be up to parents, and labels are meant to advise them what to expect in the content.

Whether this is effective censorship, politically or otherwise is a discussion for another time, perhaps for other people.

Online communities have the worst situation possible. They try to cater to a wide audience, 12+ year olds as well as 35 year olds. Content that is fine for one is probably not necessarily for the other. So how to handle this?

One possibility is to actually commute parental advisory into the game. If you get close to brewfest, the censored content in WoW, parental advisory appears on the screen. This would fulfill the warning function without censoring the content.

Another possibility is to have age-based signups. If a 13 year old signs in, then brewfest is simply inaccessible, while the content does appear for players in the 17+ range. This would be censorship, but less broad. Still parents who think it is no problem that their kids zap Pink Elekks do not get to allow this option (unless they are willing to lie about their kids age).

Labeling content is much easier for off-line games. No player will randomly throw up curse-words, or pretend to be drunk, for example.

In many ways this is a new thing to happen in WoW and it does raise a range of questions. Is this the intend of PEGI? Is this suitable for online experiences which in many ways are closer to real-world encounters than to solitary gaming? What are good and practical mechanisms that inform parents of content while allowing grown-ups to experience content that is clearly fine for them? Would you allow your 12 year old to get drunk in an online game to zap pink elekks or would you find it worse to see them torture a human character?

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