For all its faults, the ESRB does provide a valuable service. Its guidelines are remarkably consistent, and it has consistently gotten better at offering the details about the game that matter to the parents who actually use them to decide what games are appropriate for their children. While it’s nice to have that big “T”, “E”, or “M” there as an overall measure, it’s the specifics that do the most good; some parents may be more lenient about violence than others, while other parents might allow bad language as long as there’s nothing too, you know, sexual going on.
Most recently, the ESRB has added to its website small plot summaries with specifics that allow some insight as to how the evaluators came up with the rating that they did. Taken as a whole, the ESRB offers the most comprehensive parental guidance of any form of media, both on the box and outside it. It’s a big part of why politicians and lawmakers have such a hard time slapping their own stickers and rules on video games: the ESRB ratings are already clearly visible on the game covers, and the clarity of the information that they provide means that if games with inappropriate content get into the hands of children, it is almost certainly their parents’ own doing.
As part of the ESRB’s mission to expand awareness of their ratings to as many people as possible, they put together a free ESRB iPhone app toward the end of last year. Mostly, it’s a simple interface to the website with access to all of the ratings the ESRB has compiled over the years as long as you have a decent connection to a network.
The true draw of the iPhone app is that in addition to the vanilla text-based search interface, it also has the capacity to allow the user to take a picture of a game (perhaps as it sits on the shelf at Your Favorite Video Game Store) and get the ESRB Rating and information for that game.
It doesn’t do a terrible job of identifying the games, but it’s not as advanced as one would hope for from a photo-recognition algorithm. It seems to work by identifying the text on the cover and inputting that text into a search on the ESRB website. It also, in a few days’ worth of random searches, seemed to have a difficult time maintaining a steady connection to whatever network was being used, whether it be the AT&T 3G network or a local wireless network . Anecdotally, it seemed to have around a 50% success rate at actually getting a connection to the server once a picture was taken. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if a failed connection led to an automatic retry. Unfortunately, if the connection fails, you have to take the picture again, which seems like an awful nuisance for an app dressed as a convenience.
To really put the app through its paces, I grabbed a bunch of games from my shelves to see what the photo recognition could handle. Here’s what I found:
Difficulty Level: Casual
Dragon Quest IX (DS): Triggered search for “Dragon Quest”—Dragon Quest IX is the second result after Dragon Quest VI. That the search didn’t include the “IX” at the end of it is a little disappointing, but the font of the “IX” is completely different than that of the “Dragon Quest”, so we’ll give it a pass.
Dragon Age II (Xbox 360): Triggered search for “Dragon Age 2” with Dragon Age II as the only result. It got the right answer, but it’s interesting that the search converted the “II” to a “2”, even though it’s listed as “Dragon Age II” in the ESRB Database.
Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3 (Xbox 360): Triggered search for “Dynasty Warriors Gundam 3” with the correct game as the only result. This one was kind of impressive, given that the fonts on the box are all over the map.
Rock Band 3: Triggered search for “Rockband 3”, with the DS version coming up first, and then the PS3/Wii/Xbox version after. A little extra programming might be able to offer priority by format based on the box in the picture; after all, it says “Xbox 360” right there on the box. Since it got the right title (missing space notwithstanding), though, we’ll give it a pass.
Difficulty Level: Hardcore
LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Platinum Family Hits Edition, Xbox 360): Triggered search for “Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga” with the Mac version coming up first, followed by PS3/Wii/Xbox360, followed by DS. This had the potential to be tricky given all the extra text on the box from the “Platinum Family Hits” designation, but the app had no trouble with it. Again, there’s a format preference issue, but the search input was perfect.
Frogger: Hop, Skip & Jumpin’ Fun (PS2): Triggered search for Frogger. First three results are: Frogger Returns (DSi, PS3, Wii), Frogger 2 (Xbox 360), and Frogger Helmet Chaos (DS, PSP). This is a fairly obscure kids game for the PS2, and again, the fonts are a little funny, but the complete miss was totally unexpected.
Mushihimesama Futari (Xbox 360, Japanese Import): Triggered search for “video Game”. First 3 results are Big Buck Hunter Safari: 2 Gun Multi-Player Edition - Hunting Video Game (Plug-and-Play), Disney/Pixar Cars 2: The Video Game (Mac, PC, PS3, Wii, X360), and Big Buck Safari - Hunting Video Game (Plug-and-Play). While I’ll admit that sending a non-ESRB-rated Japanese import at an ESRB app isn’t exactly playing fair, a simple “not found” response might have been the better way to go here.
Mario Party (N64), cart only: Triggered search for “Mario Party”. The Nintendo 64 Mario Party, rated in the early days of the ESRB, is the first result.
Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES), cart only: Triggered search for “Super Mario 3”. First two results are Super Mario Bros. 3 (Wii) and Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3 (GBA). Given that the ESRB did not exist back in the days of NES games, finding the remakes based on a screen capture of the NES cart is a good thing, given that either of those results will give an accurate modern-day rating for the old game.
Blue Stinger (Dreamcast): Triggered search for “Blue Stinger”. Blue Stinger for the Dreamcast is the first and only result.
NFL 2K1 (Dreamcast): Triggered search for “Sega nfl21”. The first three results are SEGA Rally Online Arcade (PS3, Xbox 360), SEGA Bass Fishing (PS3, Xbox 360), and Wisegal (Mac, PC). Wait, Wisegal? What happened there? Obviously, the prominent placement of the word “Sega” on the cover of this one made a difference in the result; it is perhaps the oddest search based on an image capture this test offered, though again, anyone looking for detailed information on the contents of NFL 2K1 in an ESRB app is maybe looking in the wrong place.
Obviously, the ESRB app isn’t perfect. There’s a good chance it will get 90% of what you need if you’re looking at the store shelves and not really out to test it the way this particular evaluation did, as long as you can find a reliable internet connection. Still, there’s something of an understanding that the purpose of an iPhone app is to lessen the learning curve when it comes to getting the lowdown on games; between the connection issues and the unpredictability of some of the search results, it’s not clear that this app manages that. What if a search for a Call of Duty game returned one of the T-rated DS versions as the first result? It’s clear that a future update or two could alleviate a lot of these issues in a relatively simple way, and it may be worth waiting for those updates before putting this app into practice as an actual, usable tool.
Still, it’s one more way for the ESRB to try and make people understand that it is here and that it is trying to make parents’ jobs easier when it comes to choosing games for their children. Its presence, app or not, means that any parent or politician who still thinks there’s a need to legislate the sale of games to minors simply isn’t looking hard enough at the box.