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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

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.

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.)

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.

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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Latest comments (14)

Richard Browne Partner & Head of Interactive, Many Rivers Productions2 years ago
Seriously? Slow news day I guess.
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James Brightman Editor in Chief, GamesIndustry.biz2 years ago
Not really Richard. I think Brendan raises a valid point. You obviously are free to disagree!
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Gary Lucero QA Analyst, Advanced 2 years ago
I think this is a total non-issue.
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Show all comments (14)
Anthony Chan2 years ago
I think Brendan should have started with his last paragraph and ended the article. While he raises good points from an uninformed reader's point of view, the whole concept of a "self-regulated industry body" allows for Zelnick to be the chair.

It is one argument to say that chairman of companies who are embroiled in controversy for which a regulatory board seeks to minimize, and serving on such board while being embroiled in controversy is a conflict of interest. However, given these are self-regulated industries, i.e. any board that comes about is a voluntary action on behalf of the industry. And boards need to be made up of representative executives who understand and can speak on behalf of the industry, an possess connections/business networks that ensure the goals and mandate of the board are balanced between those it means to serve and those who are "regulated" by it .

So that point leads to the flip side of the coin. To exclude Zelnick because he chairs a company that publishes controversial games could be seen as a not representative of the industry it seeks to regulate (how can you have a board that oversees an entire industry but not have any members who make controversial games??)

ESRB Mission:
To empower consumers, especially parents, with guidance that allows them to make informed decisions about the age-appropriateness and suitability of video games and apps while holding the video game industry accountable for responsible marketing practices.

By having Zelnick on the board does not undermine their above mission. It actually solidifies it. The goal of the board is to allow parents to make informed decision for CHILDREN. Having Zelnick who acknowledges and accepts that certain titles contains inappropriate content for CHILDREN and the rating reflect that.

Any attempt to correlate Take-Two's games being percieved to have "slipped through the board with incorrect or questionable ratings" and Zelnick being on the board or even that Zelnick being on the board impairs ESRB in their mission is definitely reaching . And though this article makes some valid points as stated above, because it is also trying to convey to readers that correlation, IMO that is slightly questionable journalism.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Anthony Chan on 18th March 2015 5:22pm

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Brook Jones Programmer, United Front Games2 years ago
Should the ESRB, as a self-regulating trade body, be free to appoint whomever it sees fit to serve on its board? Absolutely.

Does that mean any prominent industry member is an equally good choice? Or that it's impossible that the ESRB's board choices could create a possible conflict of interest, or at the very least, an uncomfortable implicit PR message? Not at all.

Of course, it's an increasingly moot point -- App Store ratings play a bigger role in parental game guidance these days than the ESRB, and that shift will only continue.
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Jordan Lund Columnist 2 years ago
Did you know that the MPAA is made up of Sony, Viacom/Paramount, Warner Bros., 21st Century Fox and Disney?

I am shocked!
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 2 years ago
But no matter how removed from the day-to-day running of the ESRB Zelnick might be, his current role invites accusations of impropriety.
I have no issue with this at all. However, if we ever see the release of a new Grand Theft Auto game rated "E" then we should start being a little suspicious.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany2 years ago
There is a source for a potential conflict of interests, yes. But keep those words with you: "Source" and "potential". Because that is all that it is now.
Because of that, i think It would a lot more fair and professional if we were to give this mad a bit of faith in his professionalism before rushing to use his position for his company's own gain (which is what provably more than one is thinking right now)
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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 2 years ago
With any potential conflict of interest, you really have to find a 'smoking gun' to really have cause for concern. And for TakeTwo to take advantage of their position you would also have to assume complicity from the other members and I don't really see why anyone else want to give GTA any more of an advantage.

However... is does rather throw into stark light the fact that for some reason the ESRB uses a classification system that simultaneously allows the industry to push the envelope of adult entertainment and sell it in supermarkets and toy shops. Which of course has the effect that true adult themes are ignored, while we get socially acceptable violence and looking down girls' tops and the consumer gets less protection and is left more confused about what an M rating really is.

Of course this definitely isn't a situation where the industry's needs are put before that of teh consumer by an 'independent' board made up by the industry players Of course not, nothing to see here, this is not the conspiracy that you are looking for. But I still get a faint whiff of gunsmoke in my nostrils.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Kenny Lynch on 19th March 2015 10:20am

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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee2 years ago
People would raise this concern for any other industry or regulatory body, I don't see how this case is any different.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 years ago
The German BPJS is the best example why you would not give any politically motivated people a say over what is to be sold or not. The German USK, on the other hand, is the best example how publisher interest can lead to strange decisions on what gets rated or not (ask Microsoft about the difference between Kratos, Marcus Fenix and Bulletstorm, because there obviously is one).
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Craig Bamford Writer/Consultant 2 years ago
I appreciate Sinclair's point, but it just raises the question: who should chair the ESRB?

The article seems unclear as to whether the problem is a potential conflict of interest, or whether it's a conflict of interest that (pretty clearly) goes against Sinclair's own beliefs and interests regarding game content. Would it still be just as heinous a conflict of interest if the ESRB were run by an individual who was stridently anti-violence, or even someone with a conflict along some other axis? Would it deserve as equally strident of a callout?

Is this about conflicts of interest, or conflicts of belief?

Without understanding that, it's impossible to understand what the resolution is supposed to be.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 2 years ago
I've had dealings with the MPAA in the past. The individual I was passed to, who was in charge of anti-piracy efforts for Southern California knew virtually nothing abiut the movie business. I was literally handing them a very public, very TV worthy, very easy bust. This individual did not know Miramax was part of Disney (true at the time), and argued with me that they didn't have th the right to enforce those copyrights (they did). When he finally sent out their local PI, The guy knew absolutely nothing, didn't care to, and refused to allow me to meet him at the location to teach him. If he didn't walk in there and see bootleg DVDs of movies he recognized, that was obviously too much effort. All they had to do was make the complaint, seize the discs and call the media.

as far as the ratings go, Kirby Dick's This Film is Not Yet rated says it all

I'd much rather have a peddler of controversial ga,es at the head, because when push comes to shove he's much less likely to back down. With the exception of Halo, whose M rating mystifies me to this day, I typically agree with them. The ESRB, unlike the MPAA is pretty consistent with their application, and far more elastic when it comes to changing attitudes in society. They just need to bow to reality as the MPAA ahould, and create R Cards for those 12 and over who, with parental permission can buy whatever they want.

I still get carded in Best Buy by overzealous new employees. I haven't been under 18 in a very long time.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jeff Kleist on 20th March 2015 11:27am

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Brendan Sinclair Senior Editor, GamesIndustry.biz2 years ago
@Craig My objection here is about perception more than conflict of interest or belief. I think it looks bad having Zelnick as chairman of the ESRB. In practice, I don't think the ESRB operates any differently with him at the helm, but it does make the ESRB more vulnerable to criticisms from people who see the industry as that corrupt, sinister shadow organization the NRA tried to paint them as after Newtown. And if you're the ESA and concerned first and foremost with representing the interests of your member companies, I think it would be a good idea for you to not hand your critics quite so much ammunition.

Assuming the ESRB has no interest in setting up a board of directors independent from the ESA (which is fine), there are still plenty of other options to be found in the leadership of other ESA companies that aren't so intertwined with a franchise famous for pushing the M rating as far as it can go.
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