The rating game

If ever you’ve watched cable television, then you’ve helped boost those so-called “ratings” that critics and studios are always crowing about. Many people think it’s just a bullshit system of creating hype for the shows that spend the prettiest penny, though there is an actual method to the madness.

If ever you’ve watched cable television, then you’ve helped boost those so-called “ratings” that critics and studios are always crowing about. Many people think it’s just a bullshit system of creating hype for the shows that spend the prettiest penny, though there is an actual method to the madness.

They’re called the Nielsen Ratings, and TV executives would beat their own children across the ass with a pinewood switch just for a single percentage bump. These ratings are the single most important factor to determine a TV actor’s selection of a show to work on, where advertisers will take their commercials and, most importantly, whether or not a studio will keep a show in their lineup. Nielsen Ratings are collected through a mix of wide-canvassing surveys and the use of “set meters,” which monitor the data that flows from cable providers to TV sets at home.

That may sound a bit Big Brother, though most of their surveillance is useless. The Nielsen Media Research group gathers the ratings that really matter during “sweeps week,” a set period of each programming season when Nielsen pays viewers a small fee to keep diaries of their viewing habits and submit them for data collection. This creates a lot of criticism for the Nielsen system because it leaves a lot of room for error, along with the risk that those surveyed are full of shit.

Nielsen expanded to the video gaming world a few years back and now offers game studios the same sort of feedback as TV studios. The video game industry isn’t as cutthroat as TV, though the dependence on Nielsen Ratings has become the primary way to track how effective advertisements are in selling games.

Rather than surveying what gamers watch, Nielsen Interactive Entertainment (Nielsen IE) monitors online advertisements and tracks how many of them lead to a sale. Next, they include data taken from in-store ads and ad sales from print media companies to determine which banners and in-page ads are bringing in sales.

It’s not an exact science by any means, but the IE division does a hell of a lot better than the TV ratings in figuring out what ads are hooking gamers and what ads are just wastes of paper. Nielsen IE has gained larger contracts in the past year with the release of two next-generation consoles, Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s PlayStation 3, and both companies have paid handsomely to have Nielsen track their sales.

Nielsen IE reported this year that gaming among adults has jumped dramatically since last year. Thirty-seven percent of all households have a gaming console and 16 percent own a portable gaming device-and only two-thirds of those households have kids. Similarly, one in three adults participate in online gaming.

“Whoa,” says the skeptic. “One in three? That’s impossible!” Believe it, folks: World of Warcraft (WoW) has become so popular that it’s actually become a common reason for divorce. No official statistics have been gathered, but more than 500 cases nationwide have cited WoW as a reason to file for divorce. There was even an April Fools report claiming that Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey divorced over WoW, though one can’t help but wonder how close to the truth this was, given the 8.5 million users worldwide.

Still, Nielsen IE mostly monitors the effect of advertising on sales. The industry standard for actual sales tracking is still the NPD Group (formerly the National Purchase Diary), the powerhouse of sales tracking that covers everything from automotive and beauty product sales to music and footwear purchasing trends. The NPD has confirmed Nielsen IE’s research and their preemptive first-quarter 2007 reports suggest yet another boost in gaming among adults-they might even start tracking WoW-related divorces this year.

The third group telling consumers about games is arguably the most important: the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). These are the friendly folks that poke through beta versions of games looking for blood, curse words and nipples, all in the name of deciding how appropriate a game is.

There are ratings ranging from Early Childhood (meaning a game like Elmo’s Letter Adventure) to Adults Only (AO). If the ESRB deems a game AO (for ages 18 and older) or Mature (for ages 17 and older), the game comes with sales restrictions that require stores to ID gamers trying to buy that game. Currently, only 23 PC games have earned an AO rating, with the majority of them earning it not for graphic violence, but for their use of sex and nudity.

Doesn’t that just seem backwards? How is it that a reproductive organ is more offensive than ripping out the spine of a kung fu master in drag, vis-a-vis Mortal Kombat? There are role playing games that offer a quick glimpse at the beautiful shape of a woman’s labia that get tagged with a big black-and-white AO all over the packaging, yet horror games that allow you to rocket launch the shit out of a fellow human being can be purchased by any gamer with a high school ID.

Curiously enough, though Teen ratings suggest players be age 13 or older, no actual restrictions apply to purchasing the games. Then again, it’s likely that the industry assumes most 12-year-olds still need mom or dad to get to a game store and that their folks offer purchasing consent.

Both Nielsen IE and NPD have issued sales charts that show the market leaning heavily toward games rated Teen and Mature, with less than one-fourth of all sales made for games rated under Teen. This suggests that games are indeed growing up, and while it’s nice to see a mature audience, it’d be even better for the ESRB to pull their heads out of their collective sphincter and realize that an exploding head is more traumatizing than the occasional fuckin’ in the bushes. After all, except at Wal-Mart, it’s easier to buy Backdoor Whores Vol. 44 than it is to purchase a 12-gauge, right?