America's video game ratings board and the country's most prominent seller of used games say that this week's "Animal Crossing" N-word incident doesn't expose a weakness in the ratings accuracy of used games.
Earlier this week we broke the news that copies of "Animal Crossing: Wild World" sent to reporters included a player-added racial slur. In what appeared to be meant in a hip-hop sense, rather than a term of offense, a character had been set up to greet the player with the word "N---a."
Nintendo quickly apologized and called for a return of the games, but the incident indicated a possible vulnerability in the ratings on used games.
"Animal Crossing" is rated E for everyone. And while the box does indicate that the "Game Experience May Change During Online Play," nothing on the box indicates that someone obtaining a used game might be exposed to some non-E-rated content.
I contacted the Entertainment Software Ratings Board and GameStop, which includes sales of used games as a significant part of its business, to get their thoughts on this apparent loophole.
ESRB spokesperson Eliot Mizrachi, told me over e-mail that the type of content in the "Animal Crossing" incident would be considered user-generated content. "Just as with online-enabled games that allow features like chat, ESRB ratings cannot anticipate and therefore consider user-generated content in the ratings we assign," he wrote. "Besides, as you mentioned, saving content to the actual game medium is pretty uncommon in today's games. Most games are read-only with the saved content being stored on the system and not on the game medium itself."
Mizrachi is correct that most games -- certainly the ones on disc for the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii -- can't have user-generated content on them. Of the current gaming systems, only the DS offers games on a cartridge medium that allows content to be saved. This content could be as minimal as the name of a save file, of course, which could be named after all sorts of non rating-appropriate terms. The ESRB may not consider such content under their jurisdiction to rate, but as of now they do not provide any labels that warn of such content.
The ESRB may not have much reason to worry that questionable content will make it to consumers because gaming chain GameStop claims to be scrubbing the content from re-sold games. Chris Olivera, spokesman for GameStop, told me in a phone interview that his company has a "proprietary" process that wipes consoles and games clean before they are sold back to consumers. He declined to walk through the steps taken, saying it is competitive information, but indicated that systems are, for example, " wiped clean electronically and manually." All product sold by consumers goes back to GameStop's Texas or Kentucky installations. "There are rare situation where a game will be resold or moved to another GameStop store but that's if the game is completely unopened or if we understand the chain of where the game has been. But the standard protocol is that anything used is coming back to Texas or Kentucky." He said that the company is aware of occasions where content has slipped through but that the process is continuously being revised and improved.
In other words, Olivera said, is by design, a used E-rated copy of "Animal Crossing" or any other used DS game sold at GameStop will include offensive content added by the previous owner. As a result, he said, "We see no need to warn consumers that the credibility of the product may be impeached."
As far as the ESRB and GameStop are concerned, this week's slip-up by Nintendo is an isolated incident. They're aware of the loopholes, they've said.