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ESRB games rating board to bring parental advice to apps, but not Google or Apple

by Phil Hornshaw

Video games aren’t regulated by the government, but like the film industry, gaming publishers and developers submit to ratings from an industry group that determines whether racy or violent content is appropriate for children. The Electronic Software Ratings Board, which is responsible for all those “E,” “T” and “MA” ratings seen on video game packages to advise parents of their content, are now looking to add their ratings to mobile games.

According to a story from GigaOM, however, while the ESRB has had several mobile app operators including Microsoft sign on to submit to its ratings – which are industry standard outside of the mobile sphere – Google and Apple haven’t agreed to be rated by the ESRB.

That doesn’t bode well for the success of any potential mobile game rating standard, given that the vast majority of apps come from the makers of the Android and iOS operating systems. Google’s Android Market just surpassed Apple’s iTunes App Store in terms of sales during the second quarter in 2011, but Apple still accounts for more apps in its store in total (though probably not for long).

Google and Apple not going in for the ratings doesn’t mean that their apps aren’t rated, however. It’s well known that Apple has a fairly strict procedure when it comes to approving apps in the App Store, and it generally bounces anything it deems too violent or sexual. Google also has a somewhat more lax parental control (mostly because it doesn’t restrict apps in the Android Market), and both stores are also pretty heavily dependent on user reviews to tell other users what they’re getting into when it comes to games and apps.

The benefit of the ESRB, however, is that it’s an independent body made up specifically of parents, and it’s already well-known and trusted in video games. The ESRB is partnering with the CTIA, the international organization that gives oversight to the wireless communication industry, to spread the ratings to the mobile industry. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, Microsoft and U.S. Cellular have all signed on to accept them. Once a rating is doled out by the ESRB, it can be carried across multiple platforms for that game, and a developer who isn’t happy with a rating can challenge it. The ESRB has also added mobile-specific characteristics, like online capability, to the content it checks and makes note of in compiling its ratings.

But without the apps on Android and iOS, the ESRB’s impact will likely be pretty minimal. The trouble is that having multiple standards is going to lead to some confusion. Apple might bounce an app that the ESRB hits with a “T” (teen) rating, while in the Android Market an app might be missing parental controls that would be appropriate for it. Adding a ratings board that such a big segment of the mobile sphere doesn’t support might end up being more confusing to parents, not less.

For the moment, though, Google and Apple’s position makes some sense. With literally hundreds of thousands of apps in the Android Market, and tens of thousands of games, it would be impossible for the ESRB to rate them all. Meanwhile, Google already has a parental control system in place, so why would it mess with that for an imperfect system?

But as time goes on, a little synergy between the big app stores and the ESRB could, overall, be better for mobile gaming as a whole. The ESRB has seen a lot of success with console and PC gaming, and it’s never a bad thing to help parents make better-informed decisions about what their kids are playing.