Washington, D.C. December 13, 1995
Submission for Senators Lieberman and Kohl Press Conference on Computer and Video Game Ratings
Stephen Balkam, Executive Director, Recreational Software Advisory Council
We welcome this opportunity to give an update on our activities and our planned expansion of the RSAC system to embrace other media, including the Internet and television. Senator Lieberman and Senator Kohl have shown considerable leadership and determination in this area and we applaud their efforts to bring this issue once again to the public's attention. We particularly support their call to retailers to insist that software publishers rate their products before they will give them shelf space. WalMart have been market leaders with their policy on ratings. Our hope is that other retailers will follow WalMart's line. In the meantime, we will continue to develop greater public awareness of the RSAC rating system through the media, publications and a planned PSA.
The Recreational Software Advisory Council was established in September 1994 as a direct response to Senators Lieberman and Kohl's call for an independent, objective, rating system for computer games. In the past year we have rated over 300 titles with over 90 companies including many of the top selling games: Myst by Broderbund; Doom by id Software; Pocahontas by Disney Interactive and MechWarrior II by Activision.
RSAC's approach to the issue of rating interactive software is unique. Faced with the large volume of titles coming on to the market each year, the RSAC board recognized that full prior review of every title (with an average playing time of 100 hours) would be impossible. Instead, an innovative, content-disclosure system was developed by Dr. Donald Roberts, Chairman of Communications at Stanford University. The software publisher is branched through a complex questionnaire which determines, through its inbuilt algorithm, a suggested rating based on the levels of violence, sex/nudity and language in the title. This together with a descriptor, such as, Humans killed or Explicit sexual activity is placed in graphic form on the front of the box. Our trademark thermometer gives a further indication of the levels of objectionable material from 0 to 4.
The ratings, or content advisories, are not age-based. It was decided from an early stage of RSAC's development that determining what a thirteen-year old could and could not see would not be practical. Instead, we took as our model, the FDA food labeling system which lets consumers know the amounts of carbohydrates, fat and sugars in a particular product, without making a judgment as to who should eat it. With an RSAC rated software title, the parent can determine for themselves, what levels of violence or sex or language is appropriate for their child, based on the advisory on the front of the box.
Safeguards and Sanctions
The RSAC board ensured in the establishment of the system, to include a range of spot checks and sanctions in the event of a publisher willfully misleading the Council about the content in a software title. Through the legally binding contract that all publishers sign, RSAC is given the power to spot check any software title and submit it for full review to the RSAC Auditors, a group based at Yale University. If a software publisher is found to have willfully misrepresented the content of a title, RSAC can impose monetary fines, have the product taken off retailers shelves, and forcibly re-rated. To date, these measures have not needed to be taken. The threat of sanctions has provided a sufficient deterrent to any company tempted to cheat the system.
An Open System
Another unique element of RSAC is that it is a fully open system. The methodology is freely available to anyone who requests it in either paper or on a Windows format. This is a dramatic departure from the traditional movie rating system deployed in most countries around the world, where a group of individuals (their identities kept secret in the U.S.) meet to decide a movie's rating on criteria that is not made public. In addition, the RSAC system is open to appeal by not only software publishers, but also media watchdogs, community associations and individual parents and consumers who feel a rating, or the criteria which determined a rating, was incorrect.
Annual review sessions are held to invite suggestions, comments, criticisms and proposals for change to the ratings methodology. We expect, that as more research is conducted in the areas of media violence, the effects of pornography and child development, the RSAC system will be further developed and improved.
RSAC's Board and Advisors
RSAC's independence is most clearly reflected in the make-up of the Board of Directors and Advisory Committee. The Board has an inbuilt majority of parents, educators and practitioners from outside the software industry. Notable Board members include Dr. Donald Roberts of Stanford University, Carol Edwards of the National Institute for the Improvement of Education and Dr. Norman Sherry of the Harvard Medical School. Dr. Dorothy Singer, a psychologist from Yale University and Marcy Kelly, President of Mediascope are two of our expert advisors.
Links with Retailers
Throughout this past year, we have kept in close contact with many of the major retail outlets for recreational software. WalMart, the country's largest retailer have agreed to distribute over one million RSAC educational leaflets throughout their chain. They have also created an informational poster using our system to explain the categories to their customers.
Software Etc. have used our specially designed poster in their 400 stores. And we have kept in regular contact with the Chairman and CEO of NeoStar, Jim McCurry who has gone on record as saying that "It is not a matter of if, but when we insist on ratings." Our hope is that more retailers will see that rated products makes good marketing sense. Chuck Kerby, a WalMart Vice President says that customer complaints about recreational software have all but disappeared since they took their strong stance on ratings.
In a Consumer End Survey conducted earlier this year, 70% of those American households polled said they wanted to see ratings on computer games. Of those a clear majority favored a content-labeling system which gave them information about the levels of violence, sex and bad language that could be found in a particular product.
We have received numerous calls and letter of support from parents and consumers anxious about how they can best determine what is in a product and whether to purchase it for themselves or their children. With our newly launched web site, parents connected to the Internet can now download our updated list of all rated titles and request their own copy of the RSAC Ratings Questionnaire.
RSAC on the Internet
An exciting development in the past few months has been the challenge to adapt the RSAC rating system to function on the Internet. A growing chorus of concerned parents, teachers and legislators have been calling for screening and blocking devices to be developed for the Internet. In July of this year, RSAC gave testimony to the Senate Judiciary Hearings on Pornography and the Internet. We have worked closely with the World Wide Web Consortium at MIT and are a member of the PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection) Group trying to find practical, voluntary solutions to this issue.
We plan to launch a PICS compatible rating service for web sites by the Spring of next year. We are collaborating with companies at the vanguard of software blocking devices, including Microsystems with their CyberPatrol and with Time Warner's Pathfinder and a major on-line provider.
RSAC and the V-Chip
Another area of adaptability of the RSAC system is television and the emerging V-Chip technology to block objectionable material. Senator Kent Conrad used the RSAC system as a workable example on the floor of the Senate during his successful amendment of the Telecommunications Bill. Stephen Balkam gave testimony to the Canadian CRTC hearings on Violence in Television Programming in Ottawa on how the RSAC system could be used in conjunction with the emerging V-Chip.
At the Nashville conference this summer, Vice President Gore questioned Stephen on the RSAC system and how it could be used to tackle the increasingly violent images broadcast on cable and network TV. President Clinton, at the same meeting, made his first public statement of support for the V-Chip to empower parents to make informed choices about what they and their children watched.
And after meetings with Reed Hundt at the FCC, RSAC proposed a "V-Chip Summit" to bring together the FCC, CRTC and the Canadian and US broadcast and cable associations to discuss the political, technological and logistical challenges that need to be faced to make the V-Chip and a standardized rating system a reality throughout North America.
RSAC and the Future
Never in recent memory has there been such a concerted effort from politicians, parents, consumer and community groups to tackle the problem faced by the proliferation of media and the Internet into every part of our and our children's lives. The experience the software industry went through last year in facing government legislation on ratings is now being felt in television, and the Internet. The movie and music industry is also, once again, being highly scrutinized for its portrayal of sex, violence and explicit language.
It is crucial in this atmosphere for government, whether it is national, state or local, not to be rushed into censorious legislation that will hinder or attack the free speech rights of artists, directors, publishers and writers. There is, however, a remarkable opportunity for a new consensus to emerge which stresses voluntary regulation of the different media, using a broadly accepted, objective, content-labeling system which could be read by the new technologies and easily understood by parents and consumers. RSAC is committed to playing a crucial role in this movement and we commend the tenacity and vision of Senators Lieberman and Kohl in being at the forefront of this issue.