The Entertainment Software Rating Board has come under criticism from senators, parents, developers, and gamers alike for a wide-ranging list of reasons. Some criticize it for a lack of transparency, whereas others consider its methods insufficient, its judgments inaccurate, or just "absolutely bizarre."
However, now the critique is coming from a much closer source than normal. Former ESRB rater Jerry Bonner wrote an article in the latest issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly imploring the board to fix problems that he spotted during his six-month tenure there.
Bonner called for a number of changes, including some that should be familiar to the ESRB by now. He asked the ratings board to drop its insistence on secrecy. Bonner said everything at the organization was on the up-and-up in his time there, and the lack of transparency into how it goes about its business does little beyond creating an appearance of impropriety where none actually exists.
He also suggested that the board should require raters to play games. When the board hired full-time raters last year, it specifically said that it would allow raters to actually get hands-on with products, time permitting. However, Bonner said the only games that he and the five other raters played were "random" games (his use of quotes) from the ESRB's own archive, and were only used for busywork.
As for new approaches to improving the ESRB, Bonner said the organization should consider splitting the T for Teen Rating into T13 (for teens 13 and up) and T16 (for teens 16 and up). Furthermore, he suggested eradicating the AO for Adults Only rating entirely because it is a "lame duck" rating that console makers won't allow on their systems and retailers refuse to carry. Instead, he suggested that the M for Mature rating should carry a tag for players 18 and older, instead of the current designation for gamers 17 and older.
Not all of Bonner's comments were directed at the ESRB. He also called for another system to compete with the ESRB, with the reasoning that the competition and basic tenets of capitalism would push both systems to constantly improve and in the end benefit the consumers.
Two suggestions Bonner made were to address issues that weren't even publicly known to be problems. He said the ESRB is hung up on the idea of parity: that sequels should get the same ratings as their predecessors even though they have different content.
Continuing along the same line of thought, Bonner said that from time to time, the raters would come to an agreement on a game, only to have the ESRB overrule them. He said that ordinarily the changes made were minor tweaks to descriptors, but from time to time a T for Teen would become an M for Mature, or vice versa. On those occasions, he called the ESRB's actions "ridiculous" and "extremely frustrating."
"[W]hen this would happen, we were rarely given a sufficient explanation as to why the rating was tweaked," Bonner wrote.
ESRB president Patricia Vance responded to Bonner in the same issue of EGM, saying that the ex-rater's article "contains numerous misleading statements, factual inaccuracies, and misrepresentations with respect to key aspects of the rating system." After emphasizing Bonner's relatively brief stint with the board, Vance tackled the notion of raters' decisions being vetoed.
"In the rare case when an adjustment is made to a particular recommendation from our raters, it is done only [emphasis in original] when it is obvious that [one of] their findings contradicts previous ratings for similar content, does not reflect cultural norms that have been established through public-opinion research, or would cause consumers to question the reliability of [our] ratings information," Vance wrote.
However, she added that a game being part of a series has no bearing on the rating given. She also defended the ESRB's current practice of playing only a fraction of the games submitted for review, saying it is more effective to have the publishers provide clips of all relevant content in video form. As for the secrecy issues, Vance reiterated her stance that it is necessary to keep the identities of raters secret in order to avoid any possibility that their judgment might be tampered with by external sources.
[UPDATE]: Bonner contacted GameSpot after the publication of this story with a response to Vance's statements. He said he left the ESRB on good terms and was not fired by the organization, adding that while he has more he'd like to say on the subject, he can't due to non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements with no expiration date. He then borrowed a tagline from The X-Files to say that the truth is out there, but it will be up to others to bring it to light.