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Video games to be rated by computers instead of people

A general view of atmosphere in the Playstation tent during Day 3 of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival 2011 held at the Empire Polo Club on April 17, 2011 in Indio, California.

The ESRB's new system (pdf) was announced Monday and is targeted specifically at downloaded games -- the kinds of games you'd pull off the Internet straight into a Wii or XBox console or into a handheld device.

The status quo for assigning a rating for a game has always been a rather painstaking and incomplete system. It's meant a person watching a DVD of a representative sample of the game being played and then judging from that for whom the game is appropriate. But it's hard to know all that's in the game because the reviewer can't be expected to be able to blast through all the levels at first try.

We talk to Patricia Vance, the president of the ESRB. She tells us that the new system involves a very detailed questionnaire given to the game designers and developers. It takes into account not just whether there is, say, violence in a game but in what context that violence exists. Context such as, "the degree of realism, the player's perspective, player control. Is this a depiction that you as a player control or full-motion video that just plays in front of you? Is the incentive to avoid a particular action or to pursue it? All of these elements are important when it comes to rating video games," Vance says.

Vance tells us that there are procedures in place for reviewing a rating should there be any problems.

We also talk to Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who specializes in video games. He says the new system will be an improvement over the current approach because it takes more of a game into account. But he points out that this system still doesn't rate all the ways outside of consoles and handsets that people are playing games. Angry Birds for smartphones has never had a rating.

Also in this program, a truly terrifying video game: One Single Life. If you "die" in this game, you never get to play it again. Because in the world of the game, you're dead.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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