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ESRB president Patricia Vance's plan for a world ratings solution
ESRB president Patricia Vance's plan for a world ratings solution Exclusive
April 10, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

The ESRB has long been the game industry's first line of defense against its detractors -- those that say violent games are marketed to children must first surmount the fact that there's a big old M on the front, or a red "18" for PEGI.

But not all games are sold on store shelves now. As that business goes into decline, the ESRB has had to change its tactics, and is partnering with more distributors of digital content to rate their games, including many mobile storefronts. Importantly missing are Apple and Google, but since the ESRB is a voluntary ratings body, Apple and Google have to decide that their storefronts require it, or not.

Further, while almost all ESRB ratings were previously determined by a staff of experts that reviewed publisher-submitted videos, the ratings board is now taking a more reactionary view to downloadable games, actually playing them post-release to verify publisher-supplied content. The process is growing more automated, and in the near future, a developer should be able to fill out a form and generate a rating for every territory. This means it's much more feasible for indies to get their games rated, should they so choose.

We recently spoke with ESRB president Patricia Vance about the changes in the organization, and how it's changing to meet the industry's increasingly diverse needs.

Tell me what's new with the ESRB.

Patricia Vance: Well, we are evolving the process in the system to address digitally delivered games and content in general. A year ago we launched a new process that was more scalable and lower cost for console download games - on Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, and Wii Shop - and that process has been working really well for us. So we've taken elements of that process, which is a form; it's a multiple choice questionnaire that is programmed to calculate ratings, and using that for mobile apps.

So we announced last November an agreement with the CTIA, which is a wireless trade association, to create a ratings system for mobile apps, and we have six initial participating storefronts that will be rolling out the system this year - Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, and Microsoft Windows Phone. And we are now also developing global solutions with other rating bodies around the world, again, to make it very easy for developers and storefronts to have a one stop solution to obtain, so you don't have to repeatedly submit to different rating bodies around the world. One stop solution to obtain a rating that is appropriate for each territory, because there's no universal cultural norm around the world.

No, certainly not. Every country has different things that they consider "objectionable."

That's right. So it's an interesting time, and we still believe in what we do. We think we do it really well, we think there's a clear consumer need and demand for it, and we're going to continue to provide ESRB ratings for games regardless of the device; we're platform agnostic.

When you're trying to go across regions and things like that ... PEGI rates its by age, and here we obviously have the letter grades, which are related to age but the number isn't the main stamp. How do you bring these together?

Well, I think what conceptually we're working with is having one form where everybody agrees on the same set of questions, and that form creates a specific rating in each territory. So it wouldn't be the ESRB rating in Europe if you're downloading that app or that game from a European distributor storefront; you'd get the PEGI rating. In the U.S. storefront you get the ESRB rating, if you get it in Japan you get the CERO rating.

So we'd be working with all of these rating bodies to create a system where we all agree on the same set of questions, but it actually is programmed to take into account differences in cultural norms and standards, and to create marks that are recognizable in each of those territories. And a lot of them are government operated, too, so it's important to be able to work within a regulatory framework as well.

It seems like there are a lot more games coming out now that are quite popular that are outside of the ESRB's purview. Like digitally distributed PC games. Minecraft doesn't have an ESRB rating on PC, but it's played by millions and millions of people. So do you foresee some sort of solution to that?

Well, look, the ESRB was created as a voluntary system. Console manufacturers decided they wanted to require all games published on their systems to have an ESRB rating, major retailers decided they didn't want to stock games that didn't have an ESRB rating. I think you'll get to a point - or maybe not - where there is just either the marketplace in which you want to sell your product or make your product available requires it, or publishers just feel that it's something they want to offer as a tool for consumers to make an informed choice. It's not something we can force; it's got to evolve organically.

As publishers kind of ... not necessarily fall by the wayside, but perhaps decrease in importance a little bit, how do you foresee the future of the ESRB, as regards submitting games? How would an independent game developer that wanted to have their game rated get that done?

Well, it depends on where they want their product distributed. If they're in a storefront that requires an ESRB rating, ideally they should just be able to get a rating when they submit to that storefront; it's an integrated rating process. They then utilize that rating when they submit to subsequent digital storefronts that have ESRB ratings.

We want to make it easy to use; we don't want to create additional costs, we don't want to create additional time delay for product getting to market. So that's why we developed these scalable, kind of automated solutions and shifting our resources from pre-release to post-release testing and monitoring.

The beauty about digitally-delivered content is we can quickly correct, in the event that there's a mis-assigned rating, whereas in the boxed games world, you know, if a product gets shipped with a rating it's exceedingly difficult to correct it. So I think it's a lighter touch from our standpoint, in terms of the burden on publishers, but can work just as effectively.

What if there's a game that is released outside of a storefront?

There's no requirement. If they want to come to us and get a rating they certainly can, and hopefully we'll have processes available for them to do that. But it is important for us to be able to work with companies or distributors or storefronts who are committed to correcting misinformation quickly. Because if that agreement doesn't exist, then we're vulnerable, we're exposed in terms of our marks and the credibility of the ratings that we provide.

How important do you think it is to get Google and Apple on board?

I think it's important, but I think we need to develop global solutions that are appropriate for those types of storefronts, so that's why this is an important initiative for us.

As these things have changed and you have some kind of, these forms for sort of self-submission stuff, have you found that you need to have more raters or fewer?

It's a shift in the resources from pre-review to post, so what you need more of are testers. Although our raters perform both functions today, they're not only rating product that comes through prior to release but they also do test product post-release. So they do perform both functions.

So now they're actually playing the games, instead of watching publisher-submitted videos, like before?

Well, they play it afterward from an enforcement standpoint, to make sure that all the content was disclosed upfront. So now going forward for digitally delivered content, you're not actually reviewing the content in advance of shipment or release; you're doing it afterward. So it's purely testing at that point.

And doing it afterward, obviously it takes a lot more time than reviewing a publisher submitted video.

But not for everything; I mean casual games obviously not. But the reality is there are certain environments ... like with console download games there's no high volume of new product that gets released every week. So we can test all of that very quickly, and we have experience doing that since we launched this new system last year.

But with mobile we're under no false pretenses of, "are we going to be able to test everything?" We're not. But we'll be able to test what we think are the most broadly exposed apps or those apps that you might hear about, you know, whether the media writes about it or we get a consumer complaint or a consumer inquiry, or the storefront hears about it in some way or scratches their head when it gets submitted with this rating. So there are a lot of different mechanisms that we can use without having to test everything.

How generally do you find out about that sort of thing? Do you have someone that's searching for what will be the most widely exposed games?

We clearly want to be testing the most popular product, because that has the broadest exposure. And then you're probably going to be doing some random testing, and you're going to then respond to those specific inquiries that would prompt some kind of testing. But yeah, obviously in certain segments of the market we're not going to be able to test everything.

As a lot of games move from physical storefronts to digital storefronts, do you foresee a rise in AO ratings? Because those will never be sold in stores for the most part.

Well, we'll see what happens with AO. You know up to this point most people associate AO with sexual content. We've actually assigned AO ratings for violent content as well; it's just that most of the time that product gets edited or changed in order to warrant an M rating, so you never see it in the market. But yeah, it's very possible that there will be greater acceptance of an AO rating going forward. And by the way, I think that would be a good thing for the system. It's very frustrating that publishers can't release AO product, in many cases.

And how difficult is it to work with the government agencies that may not necessarily all care as much about games, or that sort of thing.

You mean like the Federal Trade Commission? Folks like that?


Federal Trade Commission praises our system; they're big supporters of ours. They were very enthusiastic about the mobile rating system that we just announced. They are very savvy about the market - savvier than most people probably give them credit for. And every couple of years they issue a report to Congress on the marketing of violent entertainment to children; they're going to continue to do that for the foreseeable future.

So there's still going to be a watchdog on the industry in terms of how responsibly it rates product. Comprehensively they display those ratings and how they advertise their product, and then of course making sure that certain product that's not intended for a young audience isn't inappropriately targeted to a young audience, those kinds of things. The government's not going to stop doing that. [laughs]

How do you feel about the frequently cropping up bills that try to limit the sale of games to certain demographics?

Well, hopefully the Supreme Court decision will reduce the number of those sorts of what I would consider to be frivolous laws. The courts are pretty clear now on the fact that video games are considered a form of speech, just equal to film, TV, books, et cetera. So I think that's really positive for the industry and obviously for what we do. But you know politics are politics, and elected officials, or those who are running for elected office, tend to get a lot of publicity when they speak about violent video games. [laughs]

The Supreme Court ruling on games being a form of free speech ... how big was that for your business?

Well, beyond that provision of the decision it was a big validation for the ESRB. I mean one of the legs of the stool of the decision was the fact that the industry had an effective rating system that parents could utilize.

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E Zachary Knight
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Its good to hear that she is a supporter of actually using the AO rating. That is one of the frustrating things about the rating system. There should not nor ever be a black sheep when it comes to ratings. AO is just as valid in the market place as any other rating.

Doug Poston
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Valid except for the fact that most (all?) the major retailers wont sell AO titles. Even online.

AO is the NC17 of video game ratings. It's better for the publisher to release their game/movie unrated. I don't see that changing anytime soon.

Kenneth Blaney
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Doug, that's part of the point. If the ESRB uses AO more appropriately, then retailers who refuse to sell AO titles will miss out on lots of good games. Economic pressure would then cause them to reconsider their stance on AO titles.

Any retailer that refuses to sell AO titles will also refuse to sell unrated titles. Ironically, in the same store where I can't buy Minecraft (because its unrated) I can buy the "Unrated Version" of American Pie. So there is sort of a double standard with respect to video games right now.

Doug Poston
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Kenneth, there's been a double standard for a while now (don't get me started on how it's somehow okay for kids to buy an unrated simulated snuff film Saw 12, but not Halo 3).

But, while it might be a lost cause to see either AO or unrated titles sold on consoles or in major chain stores (e.g. WalMart), unrated PC games are already available on Steam and other online sources.

Right now there is no reason for anybody to accept an AO title.

Stephen Horn
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Kenneth, you say "If the ESRB uses AO more appropriately, then retailers who refuse to sell AO titles will miss out on lots of good games." Do you mean to suggest that the ESRB apply AO to more titles?

I think that, regardless of the ESRB's actions, retailers would have to start selling AO games before large video games companies would start making them. I don't think that's likely to happen, however. It's more likely that retailers will start selling unrated games, and AO will continue to be the NC-17 of the games industry.

Consider: If the ESRB decides to change the rating system to apply AO to more titles and rates the next Halo game as AO, citing realistic depictions of human blood, it seems likely in the extreme that Microsoft will remove any human blood from the game or will change its depiction to be less realistic in order to meet an M rating, rather than argue with retailers that they should make an exception to their no-AO policies to sell the next Halo.

After all, Halo would be the first such game released with the new definition of AO, which Microsoft would be asking retailers to stock in spite of the rating. Being the first game, retailers probably would not go for it, or it would require prohibitive incentives. Retailers do have reputations to protect, reputations which are reflected in the products they sell. This is why they don't stock AO games today. Further, it's a disaster waiting to happen: How would retailers really know what AO games were appropriate to stock and which were not? The ESRB are supposed to be the content experts. Given all this, it's unlikely Microsoft would decide to stick to their guns and release the game independently with an AO rating. It would be suicide for the game's sales.

Do you think Activision would be more likely to try and be the first to release a major title, such as Modern Warfare, with an AO rating? How about EA? Take-Two? Someone has to be first, which means someone has to basically say, "P&L be damned, the principle is worth more than our stockholders' money or our jobs."

And finally, even if someone did find the intestinal fortitude to take the plunge, there's no guarantee that anyone would follow them. It would probably take several major AO releases before retailers would begin to give ground. That's a lot of money to lose, possibly more than the entire AAA market can afford.

Kenneth Blaney
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Doug, I agree. But its time we stopped treating video games as toys for children.

Stephen, they should apply it where appropriate. It won't be just from major publishers pushing big box retailers to make exceptions, it will also be from customers coming into the store asking for the product.

As the fidelity in games increases, it becomes harder and harder to justify lower ratings on games that "just" contain violence when the violence can get very real all the while, narratives are dealing with some very adult topics. I'm all for not making AO the death knell that it is now.

Doug Poston
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Kenneth, I fully agree.
But, just like the deadly NC17 rating in movies, I think most games will avoid the AO label all together and release themselves "unrated".

Doug Poston
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...unless the ESRB manages to push the AO label themselves and can convince retailers that it's okay to sell AO.

Jen Bauer
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I think the ESRB does great work. I can't stand parents who don't simply READ THE RATING. It's so easy!

Cody Scott
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I hope apple never requires a rating. Getting a game rated is expensive. App store prices would skyrocket if they made a rating a requirement.