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The ESRB: Twenty Years of Sex and Violence

President Patricia Vance on rating board's first two decades, Hot Coffee as a highlight, and the challenges ahead

The Entertainment Software Rating Board began rating games 20 years ago today, with an initial batch of games including Doom for the 32X (M for Mature) and Pitfall for Super Nintendo (T for Teen). What began as a hastily proposed compromise to placate US legislators in the wake of Congressional hearings on violent video games has become an industry institution, rating nearly 38,000 games and apps across more than 40 different platforms. ESRB president Patricia Vance spoke with to mark the occasion, and while she wasn't with the group from the beginning, she underscored how its formation averted a potential disaster for the gaming industry.

"I think that there is always going to be concern and sensitivity about a variety of different content in our media, not just violence..."

"Had the industry not taken the measures it did at the time--when there were Congressional hearings and a lot of pressure to come up with a standard--had they not done that, I think the government would really, frankly, have had to step in because of the general concern about video games and now there were more mature games. Many people in the government as well as in general public assumed that all video games were for kids. That clearly had begun to change, and I think it was timely on the part of the industry to come together and create these standards that became the ESRB."

Vance noted that the US government seems to prefer self-regulation to stepping in and imposing ratings standards on media of all kinds, which no doubt helped the ESRB get established. But even after two decades of the ESRB demarcating E for Everyone (or K-A for Kids to Adults as it was originally known) from M for Mature and a 2011 Supreme Court victory, she isn't sure if the debate over violent games in the US has been settled.

"That's a hard question," Vance said. "I think that there is always going to be concern and sensitivity about a variety of different content in our media, not just violence... I think over time there's more recognition of the fact that the industry has a ratings system that consumers are aware of and are using, and that the industry is doing a good job in self-regulation. So I don't think there's much of an incentive these days for the government to step in."

Aside from the lack of government intervention, Vance listed three highlights of the group's history to date. First, she stressed the high awareness and use of the ratings among parents. About 85 per cent of parents surveyed say they're aware of the system, and 75 per cent say they use it all the time or most of the time when purchasing games. Those numbers haven't changed much of late, but Vance is hoping new generations of parents who grew up with games and the ESRB rating system may help push those figures higher.

Vance's second ESRB high point has been in the way it has offered parents more information about the games they buy than ever before, including ratings summaries for boxed games and a mobile app that lets people easily peruse that extra info while out shopping. Finally, she pointed to retailer enforcement of the ESRB system, perhaps the most significant change since she joined the group in 2002.

"Over time, the levels of policy enforcement improved dramatically," Vance said. "And it didn't just happen; it happened because of a lot of the work we were doing, and a lot of support from the top of each of those organizations."

"I actually look at [Hot Coffee] as a relatively proud moment. For us, it showed that the system worked."

In the early 2000s, when the Federal Trade Commission first started mystery shopping game retailers to see if they would sell M-rated titles to unaccompanied minors, Vance said the kids were only being carded about 15 percent of the time. In last year's FTC report, kids were prevented from buying M-rated games 87 per cent of the time, surpassing the enforcement rate on R-rated movie tickets, DVDs, and CDs with explicit lyrics.

Vance credited that improvement to the ESRB Retail Council, wherein major retailers agreed to enforce the ESRB system, and then hired the FTC's mystery shop firm to send unaccompanied minors into 100 branches of each chain to buy M-rated games. The ESRB then shared the data with retailers and used it to train their employees better. Additionally, they all implemented cash register prompts to remind clerks to check IDs whenever people buy M-rated games.

The Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Hot Coffee scandal, in which hackers uncovered a sex minigame hidden within the code of Rockstar's hit game, prompting a re-rating to AO for Adults Only, did not make Vance's list of ESRB highlights. However, it wasn't a lowpoint in her estimation, either.

"I actually look at that episode as a relatively proud moment," Vance said. "For us, it showed that the system worked. It was obviously a difficult time, but at the end of the day, it was proof that the system worked... That episode allowed us to get out in front and start talking more about the ratings and how important it is for parents to check them. So it definitely gave us an opportunity to go out and reinforce the message that the ESRB is there to help parents make good decisions for their families."

As for the next 20 years, Vance said the biggest challenge for the ESRB will be about making ratings available across all devices, everywhere games are played or sold. And while there's been progress on that front recently--ESRB ratings have been added to the Firefox Marketplace and will roll out on other storefronts in the next 6-12 months--Vance wouldn't discuss any sort of progress in having them added to the two major mobile storefronts: Apple's App Store and Google Play.

"We would like our ratings to be available across all devices, which would include the Apple and Google stores," Vance said. "I obviously can't comment on their inclination to use the system or not. We've certainly talked to everybody."

[CORRECTION]: This article originally made reference to a recall for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. A Take-Two representative said the game was not recalled, as retailers were given the option of putting AO for Adults Only stickers on their existing copies, or swapping them out with Take-Two for updated inventory. We regret the error.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.