ECA's Hal Halpin Dishes on Universal Ratings

March 15, 2008 -
The idea of a universal rating system that would span a variety of media, including video games, movies, music and TV is a popular one among some game industry critics.

High-profile political supporters of universal ratings include presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Dr. David Walsh of the National Institute on Media & the Family, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN, i.e., she's Minnesota-based Walsh's Congresswoman) and New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

Actually, I guess we can count Spitzer out of the mix as he has apparently been working on his own universal system for rating call girls.

The video game industry, on the other hand, hates the idea of universal ratings. Hates it. Writing in the April issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, ECA president Hal Halpin examines the issue:
Many of the industry's greatest critics can (usually) agree on one thing: The [ESRB] is the best rating system for entertainment products...

Hal writes that the ESRB system blows away that of the RIAA, which simply slaps "Parental Advisory" stickers on music, with no explanation. And while he finds the MPAA's system for movies to be better, its content descriptors can't compare to those of the ESRB.

Hal also notes the vagaries of the current multi-rating system media environment:
Some argue that it's unfair to have a [PG-13] movie that a 13-year-old can see, but a companion [E-rated] game that's available to "everyone." The inverse also occurs: One can watch the movie but not play the game owing to different ratings.

His conclusion? Universal ratings aren't likely to happen any time soon.

Full Disclosure Dept: The Entertainment Consumers Association is the parent company of GamePolitics.


I agree. A universal ratings system will not provide the necessary flexibility to handle individual problems on different media. The BBFC has enough problems trying to rate movies and games.

So does Australia's system. No R18 anyone?

I think there should be ratings systems for each medium of entertainment, the government needs to stop looking at entertainment as one large beast and realise that there is a different style of entertainment in every area, I would suggest going further and adding the chances of the raters splitting the rating between genre, with sandbox games being given slightly more lenient ratings given that the worst content is few and far spaces between, whereas survival horrors and LSL games are all a 5 hour OMGWTFWASTHAT?!?! spree

I have to agree that the ESRB ratings are a lot more descriptive and easier to under stand then other American ratings. Some R rated movies, I have to wonder why they got the rating they got and what is gave it that rating. Though they do give a little description, The ESRB's is a lot more detailed. A Universal rating system would be made as the Game ratings would not over lap well likewise for the movie's and especially music. It is very hard the see nudity in a song.

Universal ratings boards are a bad idea period.

Music, Games, and Movies are diffrent. It would cause more harm than good. The diffrence between the movies, music, and games is the the games are 9 times out of 10 Longer than any movie or music. With Just a Warning sticker on it wont do the game justis and will not show what's in a game. One of the things I always end up doing when I look at the back of a box is to see why it's rated that. How do you feel that if you are a parent that is buying a game for your 15 year old son and desides to get a game. You don't mind the bad langage that much but have a hot topic for violence. You buy the game and see that has a warning sticker in it and it had a nice cover no guns in the box. then when you get home and the son started to play it only to find out that it has gore, violence, and nudity. If the Universal Rating happend the parent would be mad that it did not have the information that they needed for a right choice. But with the ESRB's rating system they would look that he back see that it has all the things that smart parents would look for and get the 15 year old ether a puzzle game or a sports game maybe even a sims game...

With as many similarities as there are between the different mediums, when considering ALL the aspects of each, they absolutely CANNOT be rated in the same way.

Video games, for example, typically have a LOT more content than any other medium. It's the only one that's TRULY 3-Dimensional. As such, it requires greater description than the others.

once again proof that the only person who thinks the esrb ratings are "broken" or need to be changed is jack thompson. Maybe hillary clinton, maybe.

It is kinda funny that most parents will let (or even encourage) little kids read Halo books, but freak out if they ask to play the game. Hey, do books even have ratings or content descriptors?

A "to" should go between "kids" and "read".

I'm a little surprised at the overall satisfaction with the ESRB expressed over here. Don't get me wrong, I think the ESRB rating are vastly superior to other rating systems, but it's still somewhat lacking.

I don't know about the average consumer, but particularly in between Teen and Mature and between Mature and Adults Only, there's a LOT of different material covered.

If the principal purpose of game ratings are to inform people like parents who are not in the loop about game content, then I find the ESRB ratings to be fairly lacking in their usefulness. Better than most, but still inadequet.

I think the content descriptors are the only useful thing about the ESRB ratings. The ratings themselves are not so special because of the fact that the standards for what's inapropriate content change pretty frequently with the times, so a game that's rated M today could be rated T tommorow. Then of course, the age suggestions change with region. In America, all three HALO games got 17+ age ratings, while in most of Europe, they got 15+ ratings. Are European kids so much more mature than American kids? I doubt it, but those are the standards of that region. Course' no one said that parents shouldn't factor the aspects of their own children into the equation. Age isn't the only factor.

The ESRB is superior to other ratings systems, because it is clear and insightful. They don't just stamp "T" or "M" on the box. They also include content warnings like, "Strong Sexual Content" and "Partial Nudity," or "Mild Violence" and "Blood and Gore." Unless you're illiterate, you should know what's in the game before buying it, simply by turning it over and reading the ESRB.

Of course, while the ratings are fine, the ESRB itself needs some work. They don't play the games all the way through (Oblivion got a Teen rating at first, even though it was obviously an M game), and they're too easily swayed by public outcry (the Hot Coffee incident was just shameful, they shouldn't have changed the rating).

The bigger problem with the Universal Rating system is that most of its backers are legislators. As in, governmentally run instead of independant and voluntary. This is just another way for the government to try and exert control over the gaming industry. If the ratings system was officially sanctioned, or run, by the government, they'd finally be able to pass laws based on that ratings system.

I don't agree with Universal Ratings, but I would only accept it if it was managed by an independant group and was voluntary (like the ESRB currently is).


The one time I saw that was on a japanese manga that had nudity. Only time I've seen it.


Part of the reason Halo doesn't get a 15+ rating here is because the ESRB doesn't have a 15+ rating. ;)

But, yea, I don't like the idea of a universal rating system either. If only because then Hillary and friends would have a single avenue of attack should they attempt a Federal takeover. Even if they didn't go for legislation, it would be much easier for them to pressure a single rating group. And if the RIAA and MPAA were part of the ratings board, I wouldn't trust them to not compromise. Especially if the pressure is heavily slanted against games, as they would surely love to slap an AO on as many games as possible in order to limit their competition.

I would like to see the ESRB do more thorough analysis of the games they rate. A universal rating system will misinform and confuse parents on what the game really includes. I'm against it, but the ESRB needs to be stronger.


You know, since gamers primarily fight for equality with movies and music, a blanket rating system could be useful in reaching that goal and eliminating the prejudice that exists. If everything is held to the same standards of content and quality control in that way, that's good, right?

On the other hand though, games, movies, and music are all vastly different forms of media, and after reading this, I can see why it wouldn't work.

I guess I'd file the idea of a universal rating system in a folder marked "Last Resort", personally, but as long as times are not that desperate, there seems to be no need for it.


Exactly. What I'm getting at is that if we improve what we got, there's no need for universal ratings. Ratings need to get even more specific in my opinion.

No matter what though, Hillary will still be a crazy bitch.

Personally, I'm strongly in favour of a universal rating system. The majority of opinions I've seen seem to imply that they have to pick one of the systems in place now to use but the best option would be to create a new one entirely.

For a start I think that instead of a broad rating like Teen or Mature, they should make a specific minimum age recommendation. I suspect that a lot of time is expended on debates over whether a game is too mature for a teen rating or not quite mature enough for a mature rating. If they could simply say "Recommended for ages 14+" it would minimise such debates, they could just whack an extra year on the recommendation.

I imagine that a broad palette of content advisory ratings would suit most purposes, consider these few suggestions:

Cartoon/Mild/Moderate/Strong Violence
Cartoon/Mild/Moderate/Strong Interactive Violence
Mild/Moderate/Strong Adult Themes
Mild/Moderate/Strong Sexual Themes
Mild/Moderate/Strong Adult Language
Mild/Moderate/Strong Horror Themes
Mild/Moderate/Strong Blood/Gore
Mild/Moderate/Strong Supernatural Themes
Interactive Criminal Activity
Simulated Drug Use
Things That Will Piss Off Right Wing Nutjobs & Jack Thompson

Universal ratings system is only ideal to a few, those who want it everywhere and those who are paranoid with fear from those politicians who beet the F-n drum most of the time....

The rest of us, Videogames and Movies and Music are rated differently by different ratings systems for the commercial market.

Also for those who will do anything to force those same ratings onto games on the internet, well you CAN"T have ratings for games on the internet because it is just not possible because the internet is not a market, it is more like people who have made a game themselves can self rate a game in their own way, it is just too much time and money to just try to get an official rating from the Commercial market.

Before you ever take drastic action on the industry, THINK how you would like it if you are making something special for you, and have someone from the outside barging in onto your creative work telling you that you can't do this or you will have to put a Universal; rating on it and go though all the f-ing process of getting it rated when it was just a simple piece of art that you just wanted to make for fun...

The reason I'm thinking it would be a good idea is because ratings are used by people who aren't informed. Especially in the case of people who have no experience with new media. As an example, a parent could be confused between the teen ratings for a movie and a game since there seems little consistency. A teen movie might not contain much violence whereas a teen rated game might contain quite a lot, just without the blood.

Lack of consistency is what a universal rating would (well SHOULD) eliminate.

"...been working on his own universal system for rating call girls..."

Heh, good one, GP.

I read people saying that the government wants control of the gaming industry... If their was a universal rating system and the government got some control of the gaming industry, what will they do to it?

Governments want control of everything, its the nature of the beast. Ratings systems should be independant of governments, made up of a representative segment from each industry.

A universal rating system just SOUNDS like a good idea. In practice, its a horrible idea. The only similarities between movies, music and games is that they are a form of entertainment. How they do that is completely different. And while we're at it, why don't books have a rating system?

@ Greg

That's not quite fair. All mediums have that cross-over effect. I've watch PG-13 movies that I thought could of been rated R and visa-versa. At the end of the day, that rating is only a recommendation or an opinion. That's one reason why they shouldn't have the force of law to back them up.

@ Chopperlink

It depends on how the Universal Ratings system was controlled. If it is run by an independant group, then we have nothing to worry about. However, that's not what legislators (like Hillary) want. They want a government run ratings system. Here's why that's bad.

Up to now, a lot of bills have been passed trying to regulate sales of video games based on the ESRB. "If you sell M rated games to 16 year olds, we'll fine you!" But every time, those bills have been deemed unconstitutional. Mainly because the ESRB is an independant group. The government has no regulatory control over them. If the ESRB really wanted to, they could stamp "E" on every single game, and no one could really do anything about it. Furthermore, no developer is required to turn in thier game for ESRB consideration. They only do so now because it is in thier best interests. If the government managed to step in and start fining stores, companies might chose to abandon the ratings system to avoid the regulations.

But, if the government came up with a new ratings system, one that they controlled and required game companies to use, they could pass any damn law they please about it. And with that power, they could stiffle free expression, as companies toned down the violence and sex and language to appease their new government masters. It wouldn't matter if the game was intended for adult audiences, they'd tone it down just to fly under the radar. Because a lot of stores would be too scared to carry adult-oriented games.

I sort of like the idea of a universal ratings system, but only as far as the letter rating itself. I believe each industry should be allowed to keep their content descriptors, but having one set of letters would be nice. Unfortunately, since all of the ratings are trademarked (or something of that nature), a universal rating system would need to use new ratings, which would defeat the purpose.

Dream scenario: Everyone uses the MPAA letter ratings and ESRB descriptors.

A uni system would be great as long as it’s handled more like a joint operation than a single minded one.

I can easily point out ways this can work first off you have 3 or more boards one for games one for video/TV one for music, books,comics ect.

Maybe make 4 boards if you just HAVE to nanny music.

You then create a simple descriptor's system akin to what the ESRB has and your age slots, then you develop some rules like intent of content or overall focus of the content is what ups it in the ranks,
Most metal/rap/angst or booty calling music would be PG13, cussing is a non issue in music IMO precise vulgar lyrics could get a R but frankly PG13 and 3-4 descriptors will be better than slapping it with a R.

TV/film/games get handled much like they are now only it would be under one roof with a focus to drive media into "like” slot ranges.

Also one could add a retailers non reviewed ratings sticker/bag, what this will do is retailers follow a list/guideline so that they under some simple contract with the ratings board they can unrated media into its age ranges, violate it to many times pay a huge fine the point of this is not to over ride the current rating but rate stuff that’s not rated.

Expanding on the multi prong train of thought you’d have
But before I start you could merge music with books because it’s a medium fueled more by imagination than hard visuals, one could put comics and magazines with TV/film or have it is own board…mmmm
Board for music
Board for Books, comic, magazines , Internet(it’s coming get over it)
Board for TV and film
Board for Games interactive media
Board for music, book, literature.
Board for Comic, Magazine, Internet.
Board for Games and interactive media/software
Board for TV/ Film

These boards each have 10-80 people working in them the top 2-3 go to the main board meetings to issues and where the while is headed they set the mandate and the rules to try and equalize rating slotage for all mediums .

Basically rappers life on the big screen is a R his album is PG13 both have 2 or 3 out of 4 “like” descriptors ,the film having nudity/gore on it.

IMO music, song and book will always be 1 level short of visual mediums you do it like this even the music and book Nazis cannot complain about age slotting on their mediums.

Now to get this to work the government will have to force it since the for profit ratings boards will never merge without being forced to do so in some way.

It can work but melding the current systems together getting the direction and rules polished up and running is another issue.

posted in the forums come chat btches!

I think that the only thing that should be universal is the actual rating letters themselves. They should take all of the media they want to rate, and have one set of letters for it all, but other than that, stay out of t. Add content descriptors and probably more letters.

I think the ideal system wouldn't be letter, but instead a number system were 1 is the lightest, most inoffensive game ever, and 100 is so offensive, no one wants it. Then have a nice color scale behind it that goes from green to yellow to red to black as the number goes up, and have a ton of content descriptors.

"Actually, I guess we can count Spitzer out of the mix as he has apparently been working on his own universal system for rating call girls."


Of course Hal doesn't support a universal ratings system. He stands to profit from the current system, and the ECA stands to profit from the confusion generated by having competing systems.

The ESRB ratings are trademarked, and game publishers are forced to pay the ESRB a small fee for using it. The fee is tiny, not worth worying about to companies who spend millions on advertising games, but considering the amount of games that have these ratings on them every year, it's a tidy sum for the ESRB.

IN 2005 the ESRB formed the ESRB Retail board, which included Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Circuit City, Target, and Blockbuster Entertainment.

What has this got to do with the ECA?

Well, Hal used to be president of IEMA, the key North American non-profit retail trade organization serving the needs of major video game and interactive software retailers, including Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Circuit City, Target, and Blockbuster Entertainment.

So Hal gets all these companies to sign up the the ESRB and then goes off to form the ECA, which champions gamers rights, and fights at every turn any method to alter or change the way the ESRB is run and monitored, and the way ratings are applied.


Universal ratings have worked in other countries very successfully, and anyone REALLY interested in helping gamers as consumers would do a review of these systems and cost-analyse them against the current systems, instead of dishing up two second soundbytes to placate their corporate masters and keep the kiddies happy.
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