Rating systems

By | January 20, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot about rating systems lately.

People like to categorize things in neat little boxes.  It helps us keep track of things, especially when there are a lot of them, or when they’re complicated.  When I was around 10 years old, I had a big plastic box full of Legos.  When I needed a particular piece, I would just rummage until I found it.

Eventually I accumulated enough Legos that keeping all of them in one homogenous container made it too difficult to find what I needed, so my mom got me one of those stacks of plastic drawers with wheels on the bottom so I could move it around.  I sorted Legos into various bins.  One drawer had the Lego people and their gear, one had various special bricks like antennae, one had transparent blocks like cockpit windows, and so on.

The thing is, there were lots of reasonable ways I could have sorted the bricks.  I could have sorted by color, by size, by set, or any number of other criteria.  Different people would sort them in different ways, choosing whatever system works for them.  The system I chose worked for me, and I kept it that way until I gave the Legos to my brother.

We treat rating systems the same way.  Movies are rated G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17. TV shows are rated Y, Y7, Y7FV, G, PG, 14, or MA.  PC and console video games are rated EC, E, E10+, T, M, or AO.   Apple rates the iOS apps 4+, 9+, 12+, 17+, or “we won’t sell that app”.

These rating systems are like the stack of drawers I used for my Legos.  The problem is, because the ratings are supposed to be for everybody, they end up being inconsistent and the categorization process changes over time as people’s opinions of what is appropriate for children changes.  It should go without saying that the systems I listed are not consistent with each other, in part because they have different numbers of drawers.

I’m going to use movie ratings for the rest of this post, but everything I’m going to say applies to TV and video game ratings as well.

20 years ago, a movie with the F-bomb in it would get an instant R rating. Nowadays, the MPAA allows filmmakers one F-bomb without losing a PG-13 rating.  Why?  Because society as a whole has decided that that particular word is not so bad anymore.  The effect this has is that the vast majority of PG-13 films have exactly one F-bomb.

20 years ago, a film with even a brief glimpse of a woman’s bare chest would get an instant R rating.  Last year, my wife and I went to see the remake of Total Recall; we were surprised to learn (the unfortunate way) that the MPAA allows that in PG-13 movies now.

Filmmakers like pushing things to the very edge of what the rating they’re aiming for will let them do.  (This despite the fact that lower-rated movies earn far more money, obviously because more people go see them.)  If you remove those 24 frames or so from Total Recall, the movie would be just as good, but the filmmakers don’t care.

Alright, so nudity is now something I have to check for before I go see a PG-13 movie.  This means I now have to go look up the rating details of every PG-13 movie I want to see.  For example, I could go to the Parents Guide on IMDB for Total Recall, where I would learn that “A woman opens her top toward a man on a street while prostituting and we see that she has three breasts (three bare breasts are briefly shown).”

A few years ago, I could trust the MPAA’s ratings to help me avoid content I find objectionable.  Now, I can’t.

It’s a lot more complicated than that though.  See, the MPAA’s rating system is ok in a general sense, but it ends up steering me away from movies I might not mind seeing.  The Matrix, for example (though I did see it on TV at some point).

You might be wondering why I would be willing to see some R-rated movies but not others.  It comes down to this: the MPAA’s rating system doesn’t have enough drawers.

Really, I want a grid of ratings.  Not just G, PG, PG-13, and R; or rather, I want those ratings, but given for several categories: violence, sexual content, language, how child-appropriate the theme of the movie is, and so on.

Most types of violence don’t bother me.  Shooting, people getting shot, explosions, whatever.  But it does bother many people.

Most types of sexual content do bother me.  Any sort of nudity, or depicting sex in a way that you can tell it’s happening even if you can’t see it, isn’t something I want to see in a movie.  Referring to sex is probably ok, depending on the context.  But sexual content doesn’t bother many people (as evidenced by how many people go see movies with that sort of content).

I don’t like swear words.  I don’t use them.  But I’ve had to learn to ignore them, because so many people around me use them.  Some of my co-workers are kind enough to avoid foul language around me, or at least apologize when they use it, but it’s not something I asked them to do.  Anyway, foul language doesn’t bother me in movies, but it does bother other people, and it’s something I’d want to check for before letting my kids watch a movie.

These are just some examples.  Now, obviously they can’t have too many categories, or it becomes unwieldy.  Nobody wants to look at twelve different ratings and then try to figure out what they all mean.  Instead, four or so categories would be better.  We could use a grid like this:

G | PG

    PG | PG-13

And then all people would need to do is remember which of the four squares they care about.  We wouldn’t have to go read descriptions of the specific content in the movie in order to figure out whether we’re willing to watch it.  I really wanted to see Looper, until I read why it’s rated R.  The previews I saw didn’t even hint at any of the sexual content.

This wouldn’t fix everything.  We’d still end up in situations where people disagree about what rating a movie or show or game should get.  But at least it would make it easier to choose which shows to watch.

And as a side note, we should get rid of rating names that refer to specific ages.  Some recent misplaced outrage would have been avoided if Apple’s app store used age-agnostic terms to rate apps.

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