Video games and personal-computer software hitting the shelves for the Christmas season almost certainly will be rated, but retailers may have two different ratings systems to contend with.
What's more, the differences between the two rating systems, which are being developed by two different trade associations, could bring congressional intervention.
In response to congressional pressure to find some means of dealing with video game content unsuitable for children, the two groups -- the Interactive Digital Software Association, which represents video game companies such as Sega and Nintendo, and the Software Publishers Association, which represents personal-computer software developers and distributors -- set about establishing a rating system. However, a reported rift between the two groups may result in two separate systems.
The causes of the split are unclear. There are reports that the memberships of the organizations suspect each other's motives. Others attribute the rivalry to personal antipathy between high-level executives at both organizations.
An industry executive, who asked not to be named and has been a close observer of the process to establish a rating system, spoke of "animosity" between the two groups which, he said, is leading to the development of two different rating systems.
"People are proceeding along a couple of different tracks," he said.
Both factions have developed tentative plans, complete with ratings guidelines and symbols.
Mark Traphagen, counsel to SPA, said the group's system will be previewed to parents, educators and child-development experts in two to three weeks. It will be completed and made public by December.
Carolyn Rauch, a spokeswoman for the IDSA, said its system would be announced in July, after consultations with parents, teachers and video-industry members.
Although she would not predict that the two organizations would repair their differences, she said: "I'm not sure that there will be two systems. I don't know how it'll all play out, but we are making what we think is a very good-faith effort that is supported by many of the members of Congress."
The Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice headed by Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., and the Subcommittee on Regulation and Government Information headed by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., have been working jointly to arrange a solution to the problem of unrated video products, some of them sexual and violent in nature, reaching children. Both have been pressuring the industry to have such a system in place by the Christmas 1994 buying season.
Within Congress, the IDSA system seems to have garnered favor. Regarding the suggested holiday deadline, Jamie Schwing, legal counsel to Kohl's subcommittee, said, "We know that IDSA has worked to meet that deadline."
Meanwhile, the IDSA, formerly known as the Interactive Entertainment Industry Ratings Systems Committee, and its 12 members have created an independent ratings board to review all forms of interactive entertainment software, including CD-ROM and cartridge games.
Executive director of the board is child-development authority Dr. Arthur Pober. The board also includes other experts and parents, who will assign ratings to software products before they are shipped to retailers.
Schwing said the subcommittee would prefer one system instead of two.
"With respect to a split in the industry, we would say that it is unfortunate that consumers would have to deal with two systems," he said. "It has the potential to cause confusion in the marketplace.
"The ideal solution would be one that presents a uniform system -- one unified system that is available to help consumers make informed decisions. One that provides full and accurate information to consumers, but one that is also helpful to industry personnel. We would expect that a system would be fair and not discriminate against anyone's needs," he continued.
He hinted there might be "additional action" if the industry is unable to come up with a solution, but said "a final determination has not been made on that."
Kohl's subcommittee will meet sometime this month to discuss the development of a rating system.
John Nakahata, staff director of the Subcommittee on Regulation and Government Information, said he, too, favors the IDSA system.
"We have real strong concern about what the SPA is trying to propose," he said.
The SPA will not confirm the details of its plans. Reports by insiders say that it video-game manufacturers will rate the products themselves, and if a rating protested, the question will be referred to an independent review board.
To guard consumers against what may turn out to be confusing and inaccurate rating systems, the subcommittee may "look seriously at some kind of consumer-protection remedy," which might be handled by the Federal Trade Commission, Nakahata said.
In the event of two systems, Congress might even consider taking action itself to mandate a rating system, Nakahata added. "If it turns out to be total chaos, that's always an option," he said.
Although each organization has asserted that it is willing to work with the other, there seems to be little sign of reconciliation.
Rick Karpel, executive vice president, Video Software Dealers Association, said he favors one system.
"It doesn't help, especially at the beginning, to confuse things," he said. "We are going to support the system that is used by the majority of companies whose products we carry."
It may be difficult or even impossible for video software dealers to choose between the two systems. Both the video-game and personal-computer formats are finding their ways into new, shared markets. Although personal-computer software has not traditionally been a big seller in supermarkets, it is a small but fast-growing area.
Although its program is still largely unknown, the SPA is working with four other industry organizations: the Association of Shareware Professionals, the Educational Software Cooperative, the Shareware Trade Association and Resources, and the Association of Shareware Authors and Distributors.
Glen Ochsenreiter, the SPA's special projects director in charge of developing the game-rating guidelines, said, "We would all like to see a single system, but so far the video-game manufacturers have not been willing to recognize that the personal-computer software industry needs a system that guarantees a very fast turnaround on rating assignment."
Ochsenreiter said SPA's system will be highly defined and objective -- more so than one that depends on a ratings board.
Traphagen of the SPA said the group is creating an independent organization separate from any trade association to handle the ratings process. Whether the independent body would preview software or serve only as a board of appeal, he did not say.
He stressed that the group has made efforts to work with the IDSA. "One of our goals has been to arrive at a common goal with IDSA. Thus far, that's been a very difficult issue because the industries are very different -- different business models, very
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different cultures," he said.
Traphagen said independence and flexibility are crucial for any new system serving the PC field and many of the SPA's 1,100 members fear that, in a cooperative system between the two trade groups, the large game companies would gain control, thus receiving favorable treatment.
"It's very important in this era of shrinking shelf space for our companies to be able to have access to the retail channel without being regulated by a competing industry -- the video-game industry represented by IDSA," he said.
"The ratings system run by a trade association representing the large video-game companies may not be the best means for insuring that the PC industry retains its access to the retail channel," he continued.
Jack Heistand, chairman of the IDSA and senior vice president of Electronic Arts, a game company in San Mateo, Calif., said, "A system built on self-regulation is not going to fly, and the risk is too great."
Doug Lowenstein, president of the IDSA and executive vice president of Robinson Lake Sawyer & Miller, a Washington public-relations company, said video-game companies do not pose a threat to the SPA's members.
"We have no interest in biasing the system," he said.
Although he said he hoped the industry would not develop two systems, he cautioned, "If there are two systems now, there will be one that comes to be preferred by consumers."
Opinions in the industry were mixed. Industry members tended to support their own trade association. Ed Volkwein, senior vice president of marketing for Sega of America, Redwood City, Calif., said, "As the PC and video-game industries collide and technologies begin to converge, you are going to see an intermingling of titles and formats, such that the consumer will only want one system.
Volkwein said he suspects the SPA's self-rating system is an attempt "to flaunt the realities of ratings."
Some industry leaders are dreading the possibility of having to choose which system to follow. Linda Blanchard, marketing manager of Time Warner Interactive in Milpedas, Calif., said the company handles both PC entertainment software as well as games such as Sega Genesis and Nintendo.
"We're not in favor of either one yet," she said. "We've gotten information on both [the SPA and the IDSA systems], but until something is more final, we won't make a decision."