Video Game Age Ratings in Europe (Part 3 of 3: Mobile Games and IARC)

April 20, 2016 Leave a comment
Game ratings are crazy complicated: Multiple rating systems are used all over the world, and of course, these systems are not really compatible. Not ideal when distributing digital content for global markets. That’s where IARC steps in: This automated system generates regionalized age ratings for app stores and other platforms depending on the user’s location. It’s already used by Microsoft’s Windows Store, the Google Play Store and the Firefox Marketplace.

What does IARC do?

If you’re an app developer of publisher, you’ve probably already encountered IARC. IARC – short for International Age Rating Coalition – is a global rating system for mobile apps (not just mobile games). The system automates the classification process and produces a set of different, localized ratings for apps available in the participating stores.

Previously, app stores used a “one size fits all” approach: the ratings were the same for all users. IARC ratings are different; they now take into account the legal und cultural backgrounds of users worldwide. More than 1.5 billion people are covered by the system. IARC automatically generates ratings for Europe (PEGI), North America (ESRB), Brazil (ClassInd) and Australia (ACB). There’s also a generic rating for non-participating regions. These ratings differ depending on the content in the different regions.

What’s the use of IARC?

The international system of game ratings is completely fragmented. In part 1 of our age rating miniseries, we already explained how the two European rating systems work.

Content with relevance for game classifications can roughly be categorized in four categories: Pornography, violence, politically or historically sensitive (in Germany: “anti-constitutional”) content and other risks, e.g. instructions for risky, dangerous or self-harming behaviour. The different assessments mainly have cultural and historical reasons. Australia for example is rather strict when it comes to depicturing drug use while US ratings are very sensitive when it comes to sexual content. German authorities have a rather liberal approach on nudity but are sensitive when it comes to violence.

Besides the different evaluations, the age groups used by the rating bodies also differ. The North American ESRB classifies computer games as „Early Childhood“, „Everyone“, 10+, 13+, 17+ und 18+, the Pan European Game Information System (PEGI) classifies 3+, 7+, 12+, 16+ und 18+, and German USK rates 0+, 6+, 12+, 16+ und 18+. Furthermore, each rating system uses its own labels. These don’t only differ visually, but also in the information they provide.

Game developers have to submit their games to rating organizations for most sale regions, a time-consuming and expensive process. In the past, this lead to most apps having no or wrong labels.

How does it work?

IARC ratings are provided by participating app stores and generated during the submission process. It is not possible to use IARC externally, i.e. on a stand-alone basis.

During the submission process, developers have to fill out a dynamic questionnaire. For example, developers of a gaming app have to indicate whether it contains violence, sexual content or vulgar language. Affirmative answers lead to more detailed questions that take into consideration, inter alia, visual representation, realism, and context.

Based on this information, IARC then calculates age ratings and additional content descriptors for the different regions. The system applies different matrices depending on the label to automatically determine the correct ratings for each app. If an app already has a rating by a participating rating body, this overrules

Users will easily recognize the labels, as the ratings are visually identical or at least similar to those used by the different national systems. The content descriptors, well-known to users accustomed to ESRB or PEGI ratings, inform about potentially harmful content (e.g. alcohol, drugs) and interactive elements (geo-locating, in-app-sales, social features etc.).

The ratings are based primarily on the information provided by the publisher. However, the organizations behind IARC regularly review these ratings and change them if deemed necessary. Manual reviews are done especially if a rating is denied, in case of complaints and after alerts. Alerts are automatically generated if certain questions are affirmed during the submission process. Furthermore, the IARC members also undertake random reviews, mainly on hot-selling and popular apps.

Who’s behind IARC?

IARC was created by the partners of the International Ratings Summits that have taken place every year since 2011. The members are:

It is planned to expand the system also to other countries.

As described above, the IARC rating system uses different classification matrixes to automate the rating process. These are developed by the participating organizations and vary for each region. If a manual check shows a problematic rating even though the contents of an app were correctly described, the local IARC body has the possibility to adapt its classification matrix. The matrices continuously evolve to take into consideration changes in the rating criteria of the member organization.

Changes can also be implemented directly into the questionnaire, i.e. on a global level. This can be necessary to help IARC adapt to technological developments (virtual reality ) – or if help texts are deemed misleading which may lead developers to provide incorrect information on the contents of their app. These changes are done by the Rating Authority Working Group, it supervises the work of the IARC system and is composed of all five members.

And the bottom line?

Except for Apples App Store and Valves Steam, all major app stores already use IARC. It’s available on the Google Play Store, the Nintendo eShop, the Windows Store and the Firefox Marketplace. Sony already announced that the PlayStation Network will soon follow.

For developers and publishers, the system is easy to use and cost-effective.

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Felix Hilgert

Felix Hilgert

Senior Associate at Osborne Clarke
Felix is a lawyer with Osborne Clarke's IT Team in Cologne, where he acts for companies of all sizes, from start-ups to market leaders.

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