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Upon reading over at Gamepolitics.com that the New York governor has signed a video game bill into law, I got thinking about the role of the ratings system in both video games and film. The law is unconstitutional and pointless; essentially it spends taxpayer money on ensuring that new video game consoles have parental lockout features by 2010 – which, of course, this entire generation of consoles already has – and mandate that games sold at retail will have to display the rating given by the ESRB – which, once again, they already do, and have for years.

Ratings systems are, of course, imperfect. The ESRB does much better than the film industry, I have to say; the ratings they give games are, for the most part, pretty fair. But like the film industry’s NC-17 rating – which effectively blocks any film from making significant box office money – the ESRB has the Adults Only rating, which blocks the game even more effectively – retailers won’t carry it, and the console manufacturers won’t allow it on their console.

It seems established that these ratings aren’t for pornographic material, which falls into a completely different realm. Ever since the embarassment of Custer’s Revenge and the other 2600-era porno-games, they’ll never allow them; and fair enough, because it would attract even more outrage from the sector who reckons most gamers as borderline psychopaths, to little benefit for gamers.

This leaves the question; what exactly is the AO rating good for, other than as cudgels by the corporations involved in distributing these products, in order to enforce their own sense of morality about them. They’re saying that in the case where a review board – no matter how flawed – determines that a given piece of art is suitable only for adults, that they will not allow adults to see it. The retailers don’t hold absolute power there; online retailers will still offer pretty much anything to anybody with a valid credit card. That leaves these ratings left as the tools of only the console manufacturers.

It might not be a bad idea to keep pornographic games off the modern consoles (not that you can’t always pop in a Blu-ray anyway), but placing arbitrary limits on how much digitized blood is too much? Why the double standard with some games, like the CSI series, which are rated for 17+ year olds yet their far gorier franchise parent is available on prime-time over-the-air broadcast for anyone with a TV?

All of this confusion and complications over the ratings is serving to do little more than self-censor the form of art the studios produce – much as the comic industry did for decades – and contribute to public perception that there is something dangerous about video games. Every form of art – from ballet to novels to film and comic books – has gone through this period early in their lives, when perception is that while the content of the art form isn’t necessarily much different than the content of others media, the delivery method poses a danger unto itself. Sure, when films came along, they didn’t have much different content than novels did – but the way people saw this content was different, so films were held to a stricter standard than novels (and still are in many ways, as any Stephen King fan can inform you). When television came along, same thing – this was being delivered into people’s homes, not a theatre you need to buy a ticket for; broadcast television is still treated much differently than film, though the advent of cable networks like HBO has changed that equation considerably.

Today, it’s this idea that because video games are interactive, they somehow pose a greater threat to people’s minds (especially the minds of THE CHILDREN, an excuse I’m so tired of… but that’s another blog) because they’re interactive. They somehow supposedly train people to act like the characters in video games. Research into this area is, of course, spotty at best, though Grand Theft Childhood has finally given gamers some strong, unbiased research into how video games affect minds. It’s most of the stuff you’d expect, of course, with cause and effect getting all mixed up; ie. while violent people are drawn to violent games, nothing indicates that non-violent people who enjoy violent games become violent as a result of them… etc. etc. As Jack White says, if you’re headed to the grave you don’t blame the hearse, and there’s nothing that these do-gooder politicians, who reckon that railing for anything “for the family” will get them elected, love more than blaming the hearse.

This was originally a GAP blog, but it garnered little attention at the time; part of the problem with GAP blogs is that they get buried so quickly when big news developments break that many people never see them, and once they hit about page 3, they’re generally out of sight forever. I put effort into it, so I might as well put it somewhere.

I’ll preface this blog by saying I know nothing about the PR business and know nobody who does. If anyone has experience in the field, I look forward to you pointing out how wrong I am.

It seems to me there’s a major disconnect between reality and public relations. It’s common to many companies, though I’m of course thinking of the big 3 at the moment. All have their moments, both good and bad, but usually far more bad. I think the principle problem is the ‘net. Think back 15 years, if you’re able. We lived in a world where computers were quite commonplace, but still unconnected, save the few of us who were into local BBS modemming. We got all our news from print and broadcast media. Up until that time, the job of a PR department was to keep the press up-to-date with information about products and to answer questions from the press on newsworthy issues.

Those issues usually had to do with the financial state of the company, not with products in development; most PR people wouldn’t have known the first thing about R&D, and just flatly told those in the tech press “no comment”, which itself isn’t remotely newsworthy. Only if something as major as the 360 failure rate (which had a huge financial impact) happened would they be forced to field technical questions. But today, they face a huge problem; it’s almost impossible to keep anything secret. All it takes is one inside leak, sure, but more important, the reporter is becoming edged out by the collective hive that is the internet community. Apple files a patent; it immediately becomes available to the internet at large; dozens of people speculate what the patent could be applied to; one or more smart people who work in fields related to the patent make compelling arguments, get dugg, slashdotted, twittered, and re-blogged. This all happens in hours, if not minutes.

Now, PR has to field questions not just from the mainstream media, but endless bloggers and just interested customers. And all of them are now armed with good speculative data from qualified sources that none of them had to pay a cent for, beyond their broadband connection. With that speculative data the questions are going to be direct, pointed. Here’s the problem for PR. Large companies need large PR staff. Many of those hired are not going to be trusted enough or qualified enough to be briefed on future R&D plans. Most only know what they’ve been briefed to cover, so they have to issue rote statements.

I’m not saying that PR are stupid. Their job is to be strongly optimistic about the state of the company and its projects in order to maintain confidence in their customers and, especially, shareholders. That’s pretty easy when things are going really well, but it’s harder when things aren’t going as well. That’s when price-drop rumours and leaked Best Buy ads cause nightmares. But even when things are going well, there’s still questions about wanted features, additions, upcoming games, etc. It’s a tough job to have to stonewall inquiries which you may not even know the answer to anyway. You have to be knowledgeable about the existing products in order to coherently dodge questions you can’t answer.

Inevitably, with the size of these departments, someone in PR says something stupid, almost always by accident, often because they’re not familiar enough with the fine points of the industry, sometimes because it all happens so fast they’re not prepared. And the slashdot/digg effect then takes its second toll, as their comment, once confined to a publication or two in most cases, gets widely spread and roundly ridiculed. It seems to me that most of these PR people even read Digg or other sites that spread these rumours and stories; they act surprised when it comes up 3 days later at a press conference, while simply checking the front page of Digg would have briefed them far better than their department did.

Microsoft has partly shown the way, with Larry Hryb, aka. Major Nelson. Director of programming and de facto spokesman for XBL (as most of you know), the guy is fully immersed in the internet subculture, but despite being a MS employee, is just a gamer. He regularly talks about and praises PS3 and Wii games he’s playing, and never, in my limited experience, acts a bit fanboyish or catty towards his employer’s competitors. You also rarely see him in the mainstream media; he’s almost exclusively an internet figure, whose twitters, weekly podcasts and blog keep the XBL world very up to date on what’s going on.

I’d really love to see Sony get a similar person out there; though the Playstation blog is a good start, it still sometimes reads and feels too “corporate”, and I can’t think of one person whose voice it seems to represent. They need someone writing that blog, podcasting, and discussing the gaming world while openly discussing, and not trashing on, the competiton; someone who’s playing lots of games on all the consoles, and not because it’s their job; someone who can field the technical questions because they are as abreast of developments as anyone else on the internet and have the answers a dedicated gamer would have. It would go far towards improving the relationship Sony has with the internet pseudo-media, who rarely treat Sony kindly.

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