Algorithms Now Helping Rate Downloadable Video Games

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As the success of games like Limbo, Minecraft and Super Meat Boy attest, nothing else in video gaming has grown as much as the digital download space. It’s now possible to create and disseminate without having to go through a brick-and-mortar front, a feat that wouldn’t have been possible even three years ago.

At the same time, that digital content has yet to be vetted the way disc-based games with retail releases. Until today, that is: The Entertainment Software Review Board just unveiled a new system they say will enable them to attach ratings to digitally released games much faster. The new process came about because the ESRB needed to have a scalable system in place to contend with the explosive growth of the digital download space.

Getting a rating for a digital game starts with a web questionnnaire that developers and/or publishers fill out online. The initial eight questions deal with content and presentation, sussing out who the enemies are, how they die, whether a game’s presentation is stylized or realistic and other questions about the levels of violence or sex.

That said, it’s not just about whether there’s sex in a game. Say there is, questions follow about how frequent sex happens and the duration of these scenes (there’s procedural granularity, in other words). Once all the questions are answered, an algorithmic process generates a rating along the ESRB’s content scale, from the family-friendly E (for everyone) at the entry-end, to the radioactive AO (Adults Only).

Not to worry, computer AIs don’t have the last say. After that rating’s delivered, ESRB raters play go back and test the game in question after it comes out to ensure the correctness of the rating. The turnaround for the new process is 24-48 hours, compared to a previous cycle of five to seven days. With the old system, developers filled out written questions about the game’s content supported by a DVD with scenes depicting the most extreme elements in the game. That DVD is still part of the process, but only for enforcement purposes, or if a developer/publisher wants to appeal a rating.

ESRB President Pat Vance stresses that humans are still part of the process, but that they’re now focused on the evaluation aspect (as in what’s actually in the game) and not the intake of content data. So while it’s not quite AIs rating AIs, the new system should help make sure that digital-only games released through services like Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and WiiWare have gone through the same approval process as the one responsible for whatever lands on retail store shelves.