"We really think it's important for consumers to be informed and help them make the best decisions for what their children do online," said Ginny Wydler, director of standards and policy for AOL (NYSE: AOL).
The ratings body, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), ranks games in categories ranging from "early childhood" to "mature" and "adult." So far, the majority of online games are unrated. Arthur Pober, executive director of ESRB, hopes AOL's announcement will help change that situation.
"When we created the ratings system (for packaged games) originally, we didn't have the entire industry," he explained. "As consumers became more and more aware we garnered a major part of the industry. I hope that's what AOL helps us do in the online world."
AOL's initiative requires that all games featured on AOL controlled screens prominently display the ESRB rating. The Internet giant's commerce partners, such as Beyond.com and eToys, will also be required to display ratings for games sold online.
Games that are rated adults-only or which are unrated will not be allowed on America Online. Many of today's popular games, like Tomb Raider and Doom, receive ratings in the "teen" and "mature" categories. AOL also plans to establish parental control tools, similar to television's "v-chip," which will allow parents to block games with ratings they feel are not appropriate for their children. Those tools are expected to be in place in about a year.
The ESRB is an independent rating system established by the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) in 1994. ESRBi, a new subdivision of the organization will handle the ratings of online games. Including an "I" in a rating indicates to parents the game includes interactive elements like chat rooms and bulletin boards where their children may be exposed to unsupervised content.
Ratings are determined by a pool of 200 employees from a variety of different backgrounds and age groups. Three separate people will rate each game.
Initially, the online group will rate the 100 to 150 games currently featured on AOL. Many offline games will have their online versions re-rated to take into account additional interactive elements. Pober says ESRB will likely hire additional employees to handle the online ratings.
For IDSA president Doug Lowenstein, who initiated the ratings discussion with AOL CEO Steve Case at a White House summit of technology leaders last summer, the program is a sign that the gaming industry is successfully regulating itself.
"There is a broad belief in the Internet community that self regulation is the preferred route to address concerns about content and, ultimately, is the only way to do it successfully. Those of us with a stake in the Internet need to step up," Lowenstein said.
Some of those in the U.S. government seem to agree with Lowenstein's belief.
In a statement issued earlier today, Senator Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., called the announcement an "encouraging sign." But he also warned that "others in the industry who talk the talk need to start walking the walk -- and soon."