Oct 24, 2022 - Technology

Video game ratings chief reflects on her wild, 20-year ride

Photo illustration of Patricia Vance in front of the ESRB logo and shapes resembling the logo

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Courtesy of ESRB

The video game industry’s most powerful ratings group is in a vastly different spot with parents and politicians than it was two decades ago, its boss, Patricia Vance, tells Axios.

Why it matters: The Entertainment Software Ratings Board serves as an industry-funded, self-regulatory shield. It took hard hits early in Vance’s run, which reaches an impressive 20 years next month.

What they’re saying: “We were under attack from a lot of different sides,” Vance says, reflecting on her early years, when Democrats and Republicans alike were calling for crackdowns on violent games and questioning the efficacy of the ratings group.

  • Vance joined the ESRB as its president in 2002. By 2006, she had testified to Congress three times, during a climate of intense scrutiny for violent media.
  • The ESRB had also been smarting from Federal Trade Commission secret shopper programs that found retailers stopping minors from buying M-rated games just 15% of the time. Vance remembers it as “a pretty strong wake-up call to the industry to get its act together.”
  • And in 2005, a hacker discovered half-finished code on the disc for the M-rated Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The content, which came to be known as “Hot Coffee," enabled an interactive sex scene, triggering the game to be re-rated “Adults Only” and pulled from store shelves.

But the ESRB’s fortunes soon turned.

  • A push by the group to get retailers to enforce game ratings saw those FTC results flip by 2011, when retailers caught 87% of minors’ attempts to buy M-rated games.
  • The GTA incident led to stronger enforcement policy forged in part, Vance notes, by future Obama attorney general Eric Holder. That included the threat of a $1 million fine for publishers who failed to disclose rating-infringing content. “I think we rose to the challenge,” Vance says. (Publishers have cooperated, and the fine has never been triggered.)
  • A 2011 Supreme Court ruling enshrined First Amendment protections for games, defeating government attempts to criminalize the sale of violent games to kids.

The challenge of Vance’s second decade at the ESRB came from gaming itself and the flood of new digitally released titles.

  • “We were not going to be able to keep up, and we had to create a scalable solution,” Vance said.
  • The ESRB had been rating games manually based on text and footage submissions from game publishers — and still does for any game with a physical release.
  • But for digital games, it worked with international partners on a free questionnaire system for developers, licensed by most major gaming storefronts such as Xbox and the Google Play Store, that auto-generates a rating that the ESRB may spot-check later. (Conspicuous holdouts to this process: Apple and Valve.)
  • “Back in 2002, we assigned maybe slightly less than 1,300 ratings a year,” Vance says. “In the last 12 months, we've assigned slightly less than 320,000.”

The big picture: “Parental concerns have evolved a lot,” says Vance.

  • Parents still want to know about content, she says, but the ESRB has seen increased curiosity about whether a game lets players spend money and online gameplay, leading to more rating descriptors about that.
  • And as privacy concerns have risen, this year the ESRB tapped a 20-year FTC veteran to oversee its work ensuring product compliance with privacy laws.

The bottom line: “I'm not sure I'll be here in another 20 years,” Vance says of the future of her run. “But I certainly think the ESRB will.”

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