Game Rating Fail – EA Says Inappropriate Ads Aren’t Their Problem

You would not expect to sit your family down in a theater to watch Frozen II… only to see the red band trailer for the R-rated remake of The Grudge to play in its gory detail before the movie. And if it did happen, you’d be pissed at the theater which showed that advertisement to an inappropriate audience.

Apparently, Electronic Arts disagrees.

As imperfect as ratings are – and believe me, I know how imperfect they are – they’re still useful. It’s nice to know roughly what you’re getting into. As the ESRB (the rating group for video games) puts it:

Use the ESRB video gameratings guide to understand how the rating system works and how to use it to select appropriate video games and apps for your family

https://www.esrb.org/ratings-guide/

And as Wikipedia notes, these aren’t just self-regulatory things:

Despite being self-regulatory, in Canada, games rated by the ESRB are required by law to be rated and/or restricted, though this only varies at a province and territory level.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_game_content_rating_system#North_America

It’s easy to see how online interactions can violate the ratings a game can have; for example, the latest release of Minecraft now features a now-familiar warning when you connect to an online server:

Again, this kind of notice is important, because lots of kids play games relatively (or completely) unsupervised.

Which brings us to Electronic Arts and a game franchise I’ve been playing on various platforms for a decade: Plants vs. Zombies. Specifically, the E10+ rated mobile version of Plants vs. Zombies 2.

As you can see, this game “Contains Ads” – usually voluntarily shown to get a perk in the game. I was a bit surprised to see the below ad pop up a lot for a while this week:

Image with a partially clad woman pushing her chest out and saying her cloth[sic] is too tight, and offering two options for the "Commander" - to take it off or adjust it.

Which led to me contacting both the publisher of the game Kiss of War (rated M) and Electronic Arts [1]:

I have seen the attached advert displayed for the game Kiss of War whilst playing Plants vs. Zombies 2.

This advert seems to suggest that KoW endorses and encourages sexual harassment in the military. As a veteran who knows a number of fellow soldiers who have suffered sexual harassment at the hands of their officers and NCOs, this strikes me as particularly offensive.

I recognize that KoW is a M17+ rated game, and that game may (and apparently does) contain offensive elements

However – and more important to EA – this inappropriate advert is appearing in an E10+ rated game. I have a hard time believing that endorsing sexual harassment falls under the E10+ rating.

Please respond posthaste with what steps, if any, your respective companies are taking to rectify this situation.

Let’s be honest. With the world on fire (probably literally again), this probably shouldn’t be our biggest priority.

But it’s still a priority.

I know female soldiers and vets who have been harassed and assaulted by superiors while on active duty. I know a lot more women who have been harassed and assaulted in civilian life. So to say I’m not thrilled is an understatement.

I’ve yet to hear back from Chengdu Nibirutech Inc (or “tap4fun”) who make Kiss of War; but I did hear back from Electronic Arts – both via a direct e-mail inquiry and via the “Contact Us” form on the website. Their responses were… unhelpful.

Hello,

Thank you for contacting EA Mobile.
 
Please visit https://help.ea.com/ ; You should be able to find answers to many of your questions within our Knowledge Base or FAQ sections.
 
If you are unable to find the answer you're looking for, click 'Talk To A Game Advisor' so that we may help you with your specific issue.
 
Thanks again for your interest in EA Mobile, and we hope you continue to enjoy playing our games on your mobile devices!


Sincerely,

EA Mobile Customer Service
“Look at our website, which doesn’t address the issue.”
 	Thank you for contacting EA help. My name is Shravan and I'll be helping you with your issue today regarding Plants vs. Zombies 2.

I see you're concerned regarding advert of game "kiss of war while playing plants vs zoombies 2" which is encouraging the sexual harassment in the military. I agree that must be disappointing for you. I'll try my best to help you out with the best possible solutions.

I wold like to inform you that the game "kiss of war" doesn't belongs to us. So, we're unable to control harassment content in the game. I would advise you to contact them to stop this.

I also would like to inform you that the game Plants vs. Zombies 2 is a free game available to download on play store. So, the adverts are managed by Google. If you don't want to see the adverts, please contact Google and ask for further help.

Denying a request for a customer support representative is never easy as our one and only aim is to fix the issue player have.

Our honest intention is to help our customers with the best of solutions, however, at times, we are bound or held back by the unavailability of the options on our end. I hope that you understand game limitation here.

I apologize for not being able to live up to your expectations and appreciate your kind understanding in this regard

Should you have any further questions regarding this or any other issues, please do not hesitate to let us know. You can also find answers to common questions on our Help Center at http://help.ea.com, or ask our community experts by visiting Answer HQ at http://answers.ea.com.

Thank you again for contacting EA help
I’m pretty sure this is a chatbot in e-mail form.

The (probable) chatbot tries to sidestep the issue by saying it’s all Google’s responsibility because it’s on the Play store. Except that isn’t the case: Google Play explicitly says the ads “are placed by the app developer”, and that the Play store doesn’t mark what kind of content is in the ads.

What if the chatbot just mis-spoke, and the ads (placed by the developer, Electronic Arts) are being served by Google’s advertising network? Even then, it’s pretty much EA’s responsibility as well:

You can set the maximum ad content rating for a specific app or for your entire account within the AdMob user interface.

https://support.google.com/admob/answer/7562142?hl=en

So EA says it’s Google’s fault. Google says it’s EA’s fault. And the Chinese company who makes the game isn’t responding.

Even if I was to be amazingly charitable and think that this was a mis-rated advert that got through – something that I’ve seen happen with bloggers before – there is no indication that EA would report the advert, block the advert, or take any action whatsoever.

Can the advert exist? Absolutely. Although I find it offensive, I’m not suggesting the advertisement be erased from existence.

I’m saying that it shouldn’t be showing in a game that I (supposedly) should be okay with letting a ten year old play by themselves. The fact that this ad showed up makes me wonder what other ads Electronic Arts (a $22.9 BILLION dollar company) would show a ten year old so they could make a few more pennies.

Doing something – anything – about an inappropriate advertisement that shows in your game that is marked as appropriate for a fifth grader is the only acceptable reaction.

Not a high bar to clear.

So I sent one more reply to EA just before publishing this post. It reads as follows:

The prior response from EA was factually incorrect – ads are placed by the app developer, per Google Play’s own website, and even if EA uses AdMob for advertising, there are rating restrictions and ways to report mis-rated adverts.

It is extremely disappointing that EA claims that it is unable to do anything about inappropriate content being delivered via an ad network that EA chooses.

It leads me to wonder what else EA would show ten year olds in order to make a few pennies.

I have written this experience up and am publishing it.

If you wish to contact EA yourself and ask them what else they think is okay to show your kids, you can mail them at customerexperience@ea.com or help@eamobile.com, or on Twitter at @PlantsvsZombies and @EAHelp.

[1] I have learned from hard experience that trying to get a human at Google is damn near impossible.

Featured Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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