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ESRB: We help "protect creative freedom"

Patricia Vance talks about fighting the image of being a "censor" and outlines the benefits of ESRB's new automatic rating tool

The ESRB is rolling out a new automatic rating tool designed to accommodate the large number of mobile game releases every day. While the ratings are in many ways identical to the descriptors on any retail title, there are also qualifiers over interactive elements that ESRB president Patricia Vance says are as important to some parents as the content warnings.

"It was mainly the result of consumer research we have been regularly conducting with parents. We are finding that parents have significant concerns related to their children's privacy when it comes to playing online and in mobile games, particularly the sharing of personal information or location and the opportunity to interact with players other than friends," said Vance. "They consider it essential that a rating system disclose information up front - not just when using an app - about these interactive elements. In fact, two thirds of them consider this information just as important as content and age-appropriateness. These findings made it clear that we had an opportunity to expand the guidance we provide consumers as it relates to managing their family's games and apps.

"Certain developers view the ESRB as a censor ... We feel that effective content labeling can actually foster creativity."

Patricia Vance

"So we added new notices, called Interactive Elements, that advise about the sharing of user-provided personal information with third parties ('Shares Info'), the sharing of the user's location with other users ('Shares Location'), and the potential exposure to user-generated content through online interactions ('Users Interact'). At our inception, we were the first two-part rating system, offering consumers information about both age-appropriateness as well as content. Now, with the advent of Interactive Elements, we are the first three-part rating system offering information that goes beyond age and content."

The ESRB, like any ratings group, has the task of commenting on content and thus has to inform developers when content will have to be changed in order to achieve a certain rating. While game makers aren't always happy with the idea of having to alter their creations, Vance argues that games benefit from the ESRB, protecting the industry from more onerous regulation and providing a uniform standard that both consumers and developers are used to.

"From an industry perspective, the ESRB has helped protect creative freedom through effective self-regulation. By successfully fulfilling its mission to ensure consumers have the information necessary to determine which games are appropriate for their family and that game publishers responsibly market their product, the industry has been able to fend off the prospect of onerous legislation or other threats of regulation," said Vance.

"The Brown v. EMA/ESA Supreme Court case is a prime example. Our rating system was recognized in that decision as an effective tool that consumers can use to help manage their children's games. This made the prospect of a legislative remedy unnecessary because the ESRB represented an existing, less restrictive means than governmental regulation. We're already beginning to see some regulatory concerns arise for digital marketplaces, especially around privacy issues. So we believe that these digital marketplaces would benefit from utilizing the ESRB ratings, particularly with the addition of Interactive Elements. And we certainly believe that consumers and developers alike would benefit from having a consistent standard.

"I've always gotten the sense that, in general, developers view ESRB as a necessary evil, a nuisance to be endured when bringing a game to market," Vance continued. "My hope is that this new system will help to change that perception because the Short Form is so simple and fast, and, not to mention, free. No matter what type of game a developer is producing, there's value in offering consumers ESRB ratings and, frankly, they've come to expect it. Our new digital rating process provides a ready-made means for doing that, and it costs the developer very little in time and nothing in money."

"Although not the majority by any means, certain developers view the ESRB as a censor, imposing limitations on the content that game creators can include in their game. We feel that effective content labeling can actually foster creativity. Generally speaking, where there is an absence of an established, credible rating standard, retailers, storefronts and platform holders tend to impose their own standards," adds Vance. "These aren't always especially transparent or clear, nor are they consistent. This kind of ambiguity and variance can result in developers self-censoring to avoid problems. Utilizing a credible third party like ESRB for ratings makes the process much clearer for developers and allows them to create their content more freely by providing a uniform, third-party standard that both platforms and developers can support and defer to."

Read the full interview on [a]list.

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David Radd avatar
David Radd: David Radd has worked as a gaming journalist since 2004 at sites such as GamerFeed, Gigex and GameDaily Biz. He was previously senior editor at IndustryGamers.
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