Why is the Grand Theft Auto CEO also chairman of the ESRB?

Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick's role undermines the perceived independence crucial to the US ratings board's legitimacy

By Brendan Sinclair.Published Wednesday 18th March 2015, 2:15pm GMT

The Entertainment Software Rating Board was created to manage an image problem. I say this not to demean the valid and necessary service it has performed for 20 years, but the American arbiter of video game ratings came about in September of 1994 because the industry at the time was perceived by parents groups and politicians alike as a corrupting influence on kids. Congressional hearings on violent video games like Doom, Mortal Kombat, and Night Trap underscored the lack of an industry-wide ratings system, and made it clear that if game publishers couldn't regulate themselves, then the government would step in and do the job for them.

A newly established trade group of the largest players in the industry at the time, the Interactive Digital Software Association, formed the ESRB to make that government intervention unnecessary. Since then, the IDSA changed its name to the Entertainment Software Association, and the ESRB has continued to be the industry's best line of defense against those who criticize the industry as irresponsible purveyors of violent smut. Whenever someone bemoans the impact Grand Theft Auto has on youth, the industry need only point to the game's clearly labelled M-for-Mature rating and widespread retailer policies forbidding sales of such games to children and ask what more they can be expected to do.

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At least, that's what the ESRB could successfully do until recently. In a press release touting the expansion of a global ratings initiative on mobile phones yesterday, the ESRB included a quote from its chairman of the board, Strauss Zelnick, better known as the chairman and CEO of Take-Two Interactive.

Take-Two has been at the heart of the ESRB's biggest controversies of the last decade.

Yes, that's the same Take-Two Interactive that owns the Grand Theft Auto franchise, and the same Take-Two that has been at the heart of the ESRB's biggest controversies of the last decade. It's the same Take-Two that released Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and co-published The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, both of which were re-rated after launch due to the inclusion of content not disclosed in the original ratings submission. It's the same Take-Two that saw its Manhunt 2 given an AO for Adults Only, then re-worked it to get an M for Mature, but declined to detail what had been cut in the process. (The ESRB backed Take-Two up on that count while also refusing to detail changes.)

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Even beyond those games, Take-Two is perhaps the most willing of the major publishers to push the envelope when it comes to objectionable content in an M-rated game. BioShock lets players "harvest" little girls to purchase power-ups, and even doles out an achievement if they harvest every girl in the game. Spec Ops: The Line required players to burn dozens of innocent civilians alive. The company's Rockstar Games label promotes its titles with review quotes like, "Max Payne 3's violence slides from over-the-top to genuinely disturbing."

Granted, all of those examples lack context. In BioShock, players are given the option of saving girls instead of harvesting them, and the game ultimately rewards them more for doing so. Additionally, that achievement is given to players just for dealing with every girl in the game; it's the player's choice whether they harvest or save them. In Spec Ops: The Line, the slaughter of innocents is shown as an accident caused in part by the fog of war, one the game requires as a narrative point depicting a would-be heroic soldier's descent into insanity. In the case of Max Payne 3, Rockstar also quoted an IGN review saying "it lingers on violence, but not in a tawdry or sensational way," adding that it "peers into the unseen causes that lie behind such acts of violence. It touches on the disparity between rich and poor, and how resentment and desperation can fester in the slums and the penthouses alike."

Those differing interpretations of the same games should make it clear just how important context and perspective can be when evaluating objectionable content. And regardless how each of us may feel about each one of those games, we should be able to agree that Take-Two's influence on the rating for each should be limited to creating the content in the game itself. At the risk of understatement, it looks bad having the head of Take-Two as chairman of the board for the ESRB.

And that's the thing. It looks bad on paper. In practice, I doubt it makes much difference. The ESRB is part of the ESA, and the two bodies share the same board of directors. When Jack Tretton stepped down as the ESA chairman last year and Zelnick replaced him, it's possible no one involved deeply considered the fact that the move was also making Zelnick chairman of the ESRB, or how that would be seen by the public. The fact is, the ESRB board of directors is almost never even publicly acknowledged, as ESRB president Patricia Vance has long been the organization's most prominent voice. I doubt the ESRB with Zelnick as chairman is run any differently than it was under Tretton, or John Riccitiello before him.

It's the sort of thing any critic of the games industry can point to as a clear conflict of interest, and many reasonable outsiders would probably look at that as a valid complaint.

But no matter how removed from the day-to-day running of the ESRB Zelnick might be, his current role invites accusations of impropriety. It's the sort of thing any critic of the games industry can point to as a clear conflict of interest, and many reasonable outsiders would probably look at that as a valid complaint. At least when titans of industry in the US become the head of the regulatory agencies that oversee their former companies, they actually have to leave those companies. In this case, Zelnick continues to benefit directly from the envelope-pushing games he produces receiving a marketable M for Mature rating from the ESRB he serves as chairman.

When the ESRB comes under fire from parents and politicians, independence will always be its best defense. Unfortunately, as a self-regulatory body that was set up by the ESA, the ESRB's independence will always be tenuous on some level. That said, there's plenty of space between "indisputably independent" and "let's have the maker of Grand Theft Auto chair our ratings board." I suggest the ESRB use some of it.

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When asked for comment, the ESRB sent over a statement from Vance, who said:

"ESRB was established by the Interactive Digital Software Association (predecessor to the Entertainment Software Association) in 1994 as the industry's self-regulatory body. It has always been governed by the same Board of Directors as ESA, which is made up of senior executives from leading game publishers who elect its chair, which rotates every two years. Strauss Zelnick currently holds that position. As with any self-regulatory body, the industry is involved in establishing the general rules by which ESRB operates - that means the overall nature of the rating system, how it gets funded, broadening the adoption of ESRB ratings on mobile storefronts (i.e., support of IARC) and other key policies. However, when it comes to the day-to-day decisions, such as what ratings to assign or enforcement actions to take, the ESRB does so without any industry consultation or involvement whatsoever. Our Board of Directors fully recognize that parents, retailers and the industry as a whole benefit from a rating system that can be trusted and will do everything in their power to ensure the integrity of the ESRB system which plays such a key role in protecting their creative freedom."

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