The ESRB has started slapping blockchain games with Adults Only ratings, so Epic has changed its store policy to allow them

4 views 5:56 am 0 Comments December 31, 2023

Unlike Steam, the Epic Games Store has a hard-and-fast rule against adult content. Its content guidelines state very clearly that “products with Adults Only ratings cannot be distributed on the Epic Games Store.” But it recently updated those guidelines to allow AO-rated games on the store for one specific reason: If they were given that rating because they involve blockchain trading.

Also unlike Steam, which banned NFT games in 2021, Epic has no issue with them: CEO Tim Sweeney said in 2022 that “developers should be free to decide how to build their games,” and it’s up to Epic users to decide whether or not to play with them. That’s fair enough, and the first blockchain-based game, Blankos Block Party, appeared on the Epic Store a few months later.

But the situation got complicated last week when the ESRB, the North American videogame rating agency, slapped an Adults Only rating on a pair of other blockchain-based games, Gods Unchained and Striker Manager 3.

The problem was not the presence of sex, which is the usual AO trigger, but the play-to-earn element: Both games offer “cash prizes” and that puts them squarely in the AO rating, which is reserved for games with “prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content, and/or gambling with real currency.” In accordance with Epic’s content guidelines, the games were removed from sale.

“ESRB can confirm that the AO (Adults Only 18+) rating was assigned to both Gods Unchained and Striker Manager 3,” the ESRB said in a statement provided to PC Gamer. “That said, the AO rating assignments were not a direct result of them being blockchain games, but rather how that was implemented.

“As is the case with all games, age rating assignments are dependent on the content of a game and the context in which it is presented to the player. The ESRB age and content rating system assesses whether products may reward real money, prizes with real world value, or something that can be exchanged for or converted to real money (i.e., gift cards, cryptocurrency, etc.), as well as whether there is cash spent to be eligible for such rewards. While it is not a blanket rule, it is possible that a blockchain-enabled game or app will warrant an Adults Only rating category assignment due to a combination of the factors discussed above.”

The ESRB also noted that Gods Unchained and Striker Manager 3 don’t appear in searches on its website because that database only catalogs physical games: “The rating information for digital-only titles are present on product detail pages so potential players know what to expect and parents can reference them immediately before deciding to purchase or download a game or app for their children.”

Following the removal, Gods Unchained developer Immutable told Decrypt that it was “working closely with rating boards on an appeal,” and that process may still be underway. But it’s also managed to do an end run around the problem, at least on the Epic Store, thanks to the updated guidelines.

While AO-rated games are still forbidden, Epic now “makes an exception for products in cases where an AO rating was applied solely due to the usage of blockchain or NFT technology.” Of course, the games in question must still comply with Epic’s other content guidelines, including its Blockchain Technology Requirements, which among other things forbids games that “facilitate gambling.”

The ESRB’s Adults Only rating used to be the kiss of death: Major retailers refused to touch any AO-rated videogame, and back in the days when games were distributed through retail channels, developers would do just about anything to avoid it. The advent of digital distribution has relieved some of that pressure: It’s still tough on the console side as Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo continue to forbid AO content on their storefronts, but if you’re a PC developer you can pretty much do what you want.

But the ESRB’s AO rating left at least some blockchain developers caught in an unexpected pincer of conflicting policies: Steam doesn’t allow blockchain games, and Epic refuses to carry AO games—except, now, for games that were rated that way because of their blockchain implementation.

“Some blockchain-based games are receiving Adults Only (AO) ratings from industry ratings bodies for their particular implementation of blockchain,” Epic Games said in a statement. “We’ve updated our Epic Games Store content policy to allow for games that are rated AO solely due to the usage of blockchain or NFT technology.

“Our other policies rejecting prohibited content such as porn, gambling, and hateful content remain in place across the Epic Games Store.”

Blockchain games haven’t been rated Adults Only across the board. Gods Unchained and Striker Manager 3 are both AO, but there are all kinds of other blockchain-based games carrying ratings as low as E (Everyone), including some that look to be far more egregious violations of the ESRB’s policies.

Polker, for instance, bills itself as “the ultimate free-to-play and play-to-earn NFT poker game,” which “requires players to win tournaments to earn keys or scraps (which can be combined into keys) to unlock a chest which can earn you a random NFT, accessories for your NFTs, and many more.” But the store page also states, in bold type, that “this is a non-gambling platform,” and apparently that disclaimer is sufficient to earn it a T (Teen) rating for “simulated gambling [and] suggestive themes.”

It’s possible the ESRB just hasn’t gotten to Polker and other games of that sort yet, and we may see them slapped with AO ratings at some point in the future. But the AO rating has always been a bit arbitrary and, frankly, ridiculous: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s infamous No Russian level is a drawn-out massacre of civilians, but hey, that’s an M, pick it up at your local Walmart. Maybe there’s an element of that at play with blockchain games on the Epic Store, too.

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