How do Age Ratings work?

I’m curious how age ratings work on Playdate. Will the console be rated as a whole by rating boards, similar to the NES Classic? Will each official game be rated individually? Are there any content restrictions from Panic (e.g. will games with blood, etc. be off-limits so the console can be completely family-friendly)?

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Being an open platform without a certification process, it is difficult to have a mandatory age rating. Anyone can make the game they want, and people can download it and install it.

FYI age ratings are not mandatory and it’s up to the platform holders to implement them or not. Using iArc, which is the industry standard, could be an idea but I think joining them (or at least a rating organization) would be very costly for Panic.

Could be useful to have a age rating in the metadata though but I don’t think this is something that is planned.

I think the only requirement so far is to not make blood red.

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RE: ratings in metadata, aren’t ESRB and iARC paid services with trademarks and copyrights on their ratings and descriptions? I’d be wary of publishing something with any of their rating content added to the metadata / posting.

Adding age rating to the metadata doesn’t necessarily mean ESRB, PEGI or iARC. You can have your own category or age recommendation. A bit like Apple system.

The issue is that an age rating is useful mainly when it is widely adopted. If only a fraction of games on a platform use it it start to lose its relevance.

One solution to that would be for Panic to create something of its own that works like how IARC issues its ratings: a super-quick survey for developers that takes 3 minutes, asks simple, easy to answer questions, and spits out a rating at the end.

IARC takes your survey answers and maps them to the various systems used by multiple “official” ratings boards, but a one-off system can be a lot simpler, and there need only be just few ratings categories which aren’t as prescriptive as something like “18+”, like:

  • Recommended for All-Ages
  • Recommended for Adolescents and Up
  • Recommended for Adults
  • Not rated by developer

A system like this, even if it’s just a metadata value, only really works if there’s a storefront that can encourage (or force) developers to use it, but something as simple as putting a 5-question content survey in the developer documentation and any “how to make a game for PlayDate” FAQs would go a long way to standardizing its use.

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I like the idea of having a simple developer survey for ratings.

I might be misremembering, but I feel like I heard GameStop and other game retailers can’t sell games if they aren’t officially rated. If this is true, would it affect PD? I’m not sure if there are plans to sell it in physical stores.

Also, would a game with more mature content be significantly less likely to be put in an official Playdate season? Of course we want the platform to be enjoyed by all but I’m wondering if there will be any official games that aren’t family-friendly. I’m mostly curious so I can make better-informed decisions while making my own prototypes.

GameStop and other game retailers can’t sell games if they aren’t officially rated.

This is general company policy, not any kind of actual restriction. It’s similar to how movie theaters don’t screen NC-17 movies, or let children into R rated movies. None of those restrictions have any legal weight or are unchangeable. For example, some documentaries that might have gotten R ratings (and thus, placed pressure on theaters to not show them to teens) have gone unrated instead and were screened nationwide anyway.

And in the only other example that comes to mind for some reason, Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive,” a low-budget gore-fest nonsense cult movie that isn’t as good as its fans think, was distributed unrated rather than get slapped with an NC-17. Plenty of theaters played it.

If PlayDate game codes or gift cards or bundles or whatever are ever sold at retail, not having ESRB ratings won’t stop them from stocking it, just like how Target and GameStop and BestBuy and everyone else sells those TV-plug retro collection devices with 50 unrated arcade games or knock-offs on them.

Also, would a game with more mature content be significantly less likely to be put in an official Playdate season?

That’s a good question for Panic, but my guess is that the PlayDate is so f’in cute that I don’t think they’ll want to officially “publish” violent or sexual games (which is what I assume you ironically mean when you say “mature content”).

I would love to see properly mature themes, emotional storytelling, social activism, history, etc, as part of Panic’s plans, but the good news is that an open platform means anyone can make anything!

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the PlayDate is so f’in cute that I don’t think they’ll want to officially “publish” violent or sexual games

I agree, and I’m not personally interested in anything super gritty… I think handheld platforms have proven to be great places for experimental games for teen/adult audiences (e.g. Ace Attorney, The World Ends with You, etc. on the DS), despite handheld platforms often being associated with “Kids’ games” compared to consoles/PC.

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We are in fact looking into this, for those developers that want to provide content guidelines. Thanks for all your helpful input! Hopefully we can come up with a system that will work great for both devs and users.

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I have some experience in this realm, having worked on elementary AppCenter and contributed to GNOME. There is the Open Age Ratings Service, which is a free and open source project to provide content and age ratings. It’s maintained by a long-time open source maintainer and was developed to closely match existing age rating systems, with input from a child psychologist. It’s used by elementary OS, Red Hat, Fedora, GNOME Software, Pop!_OS, Flathub, etc.—basically the defacto age rating system for Linux and open source.

At its core, it still requires honest answers from developers if it is self-submitted. For elementary OS AppCenter, we also review submissions for accuracy.

But the nice thing is that it covers a TON of categories, which is useful in itself. And then there are also open source libraries to translate those content ratings into age-equivalent ratings if that’s a route you want to go.

I’m happy to share more and get anyone at Panic in touch with the maintainers of OARS and related libraries.

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Thanks very much for this, Cassidy. We may be in touch!

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