Gaming regulation is a topic that concerns everyone who enjoys playing video games. Many members of The Game Reviews have expressed interest in discovering how they may become more aware of governmental involvement in the video gaming rating system, and what they can do about its implications.
To that end, The Game Reviews spoke with Rich Taylor, the Senior Vice President for Communications and Research at the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), about efforts to shed some light upon the process of video game regulation.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board
The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), is a non-profit, self-regulatory group established in 1994 by the ESA. The ESRB assigns computer and video game content ratings, enforces industry-adopted advertising guidelines and helps ensure responsible online privacy practices for the interactive entertainment software industry.
The ESRB aims to empower consumers, especially parents, with the ability to make informed decisions about the computer and video games chosen for their families through the assignment of age and content ratings, as well as holding the computer and video game industry accountable for responsible marketing practices.
The ESRB also provides advanced cautionary information about the grading and content of games, so that consumers, parents and caregivers can make informed decisions about the games that they are considering purchasing. Mr. Taylor explained, “The ESRB provides a great service by just giving information, which is a very powerful thing for engaged parents. It also is an excellent means for anyone who does care about the right of creative people to make creative works without government intrusion. The self regulated industry of creativity is better than a government related industry of creativity anytime.”
Universal Entertainment Ratings Systems
The idea of a blanket universal entertainment ratings system may sound reasonable, however, a central body would be needed in order to rate all of the products and entertainment, including television, movies, music, games, or whatever else may exist or later become available. Ultimately, a logistical problem would occur, since it is unrealistic that just one entity would be able to rate all of the content produced across that broad a spectrum. The sheer volume of material demonstrates that there are many layers which represent the entertainment industry. Therefore, whatever entertainment ratings system is utilized would have to be adjustable to the many divergent mediums, which is unrealistic.
Mr. Taylor explained, “An ‘M’ rated game, [would not necessarily] equal the same on television. What it would equal on the screen, and other media, [may differ as well]. In addition, just how to fit everything into neat categories for the consumer could be very confusing. The simplicity of the G, PG, PG-13, R, of the motion picture industry and the E, T and M of the ESRB system, are clear. The [fact that] people understand them, for the incredible level of content, [confirms that] the ESRB provides a system that actually is a benefit to the ultimate audience, which is consumers.”
The ESRB can actually be much more beneficial to the public than a unified rating system for music, movies and games. This is because the government cannot regulate the content of a game, as it is considered “protected speech” under the First Amendment. Numerous attempts to violate that protection, at state levels, have generally failed. According to Mr. Taylor, twelve consecutive decisions have been defeated on the grounds of unconstitutionality.
According to information released by the ESRB, “After consulting a wide range of child development and academic experts, analyzing other rating systems and, most importantly, listening to parents, the ESRB found that what consumers really wanted in a video game rating system was both age-based rating categories as well as concise, impartial information about what type of content is in the game. Parents felt strongly that a rating system should inform and suggest, not prohibit.”
The ESRB created and implemented the first two-part rating system, which includes both a rating category to suggest age-appropriateness, as well as content descriptors to indicate what content may have triggered the rating and/or may be of interest or concern to the consumer. The result is a rating system that is universally adopted by the industry, supported by retailers and is consistently described by parents and opinion leaders as the best entertainment rating system in the U.S.
The ESRB Compares to the MPAA
The importance of the ESRB may be best understood when compared to what occurred in the motion picture industry with regard to regulation. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1915 (Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio) that motion pictures were not governed by the First Amendment, ordinances banning the public exhibition of "immoral" films multiplied. Fostered by public outcry over perceived immorality in the movies, along with the growing number of city and state censorship boards, the industry trade and lobby organization – Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (later, the Motion Picture Association of America or MPAA in 1945) was created.
The MPAA was headed by Will H. Hays, a Republican lawyer, former U.S. Postmaster General, and campaign manager for President Warren G. Harding in 1920. Mr. Hays immediately instituted a morality clause to apply to anyone working in films, which helped to quash attempts to institute federal censorship over the film industry.
Mr. Taylor recalled, “They came up with these incredibly silly rules about what you could and could not do in movies. If I remember correctly, you could not say the word “abortion.” There were also many other rules which literally choked the ability to tell stories.”
Developed as a production censorship tool, the Hays Code (Code) was created as a set of industry guidelines governing the making and filming of motion pictures in the U. S. The MPAA adopted the code in 1930, effectively enforcing it in 1934. The Code specifically described what was considered “morally” acceptable or unacceptable content, for all motion pictures produced for public audiences.
Of course, the most problematic issues as a result of the Code were just how to enforce its "General Principles," which encompassed the following:
1. “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.”
How to interpret the Code adequately in the creation of a story of any interest became the bane of existence for many a filmmaker and studio, during the time that those principles were in place. Most would agree that almost any film could fall outside of the confines of the Code.
In 1968, the MPAA finally abandoned the Code, in favor of the subsequent MPAA film rating system. In so doing, the motion picture rating system was developed and basically freed the movie business for creative works, so that films such as Midnight Cowboy, the Godfather movies and Jaws were possible. Prior to the new rating system, it would have been impossible to advance to the kinds of films we enjoy today.
Similar to the MPAA, the ESRB provides the sort of system for the video computer game industry and consumers, allowing for creative expression, while mandating a proper age on the rating of the game. It was agreed that ratings would be applied, so that people would know what a game’s content is, and can purchase it or not, accordingly. The industry voluntarily abides by the ESRB code, and retailers play an essential role in enforcing it.
Interestingly, the Federal Trade Commission has reviewed all the different media rating systems available, and found that 80 % of the parents are aware of the ESRB system, with 10 % using it to determine purchasing decisions.
Mr. Taylor continued, “We also found out through other polling, that 89% of the parents monitor the contents of the game and 83% are involved in the purchase or rental of games. This is a great story to tell, and allows our industry to make games for everyone. All kinds of demographics, from seniors playing bowling games to those who enjoy first person shooter and role playing games, as well as sports, enjoy video games. And that is because we have a voluntary rating system in place that allows for that exploration.”
Many ESA Members Are Gamers
Mr. Taylor confirmed that his passion for gaming has been in existence since childhood, as is the case for many of the ESA staff members, which demonstrates its commitment to the industry. The building that houses the ESA facilities, in downtown Washington, D.C., also includes a canyon of law firms and other stereotypical governmental entities. To further demonstrate the ESA’s vested interest in the future of the gaming industry, in its third floor offices, there are monitors with each of the three game consoles, which are generally being played on a regular basis.
Most everyone involved in the ESA has a personal history with gaming and continue to enjoy game play at home. “Virtually everyone is a consumer of the industry, and recognizes where we started out before, which is creating an environment for them to do their business in, because that helps reach the consumers and we are all ultimately consumers, as well,” Mr. Taylor concluded.
The ESRB is a separate operation within the ESA structure; however, it does not have any interaction with the ratings or exposure to the games on a pre-release basis, unless the publisher chooses to disclose something on its own. The relationship between the ESRB and the ESA is likened to a “church and state separation” kind of affiliation. Mr. Taylor confirmed that in order for the ratings system to remain credible, it must continue to be separate from advertising or similar kinds of promotional devices.
In addition to assisting the gaming industry to confront major challenges, the ESA supports the industry by educating the public about exactly who gamers are, to ensure that the audience is understood and recognized. For example, many people continue to believe that a “gamer” is a teenager, when in fact, the average gamer is approximately 33 years old and has been playing for on average, 12 years or more.
According to Mr. Taylor, “67 % of heads of households play computer video games. It is not all child’s play, although fortunately there is play for children available. Part of the challenge, is creating a great understanding of the facts of who the gaming population is, as well as the positive contributions our industry is making in any number of areas.”
The video game industry, which began as a kind of “runt” of the entertainment world, has become much more sophisticated, a viable force with advances in technology that allow complex stories to be told in greater detail. It is the gaming industry that is leading the pack, with a growth rate of 70% over the rest of the economy.
In conclusion, Mr. Taylor recommends that all gamers who care about the industry become involved in the Video Game Voters Network, to learn about what they can do to support and protect their rights as video game enthusiasts, while keeping abreast of the developments concerning video gaming regulation.