INTERVIEW WITH PATRICIA VANCE, ESRB President
On Thursday, October 7, 2004, I had the opportunity to speak with ESRB President Patricia Vance on a number of subjects. Here are Ms. Vance’s thoughts on the changes in the industry over the last ten years, parental responsibility, and why the ESRB ratings system is as important to kids and teens as it is to adults.
BB: Would you say that the controversy surrounding Night Trap and Mortal Kombat in 1992 actually became a positive thing?
PV: I think there’s a general perception still today that video games are for kids. Particularly, among people who don’t play games. And, particularly, among parents who didn’t necessarily grow up playing video games. So, we need a better-educated consumer. That goes without saying. Ratings is one step, but certainly not the only step.
BB: Who has the tougher job: The ESRB or the MPAA?
PV: I don’t know which one’s tougher: they’re both tough. There are clear differences between what we do. There are clear differences between the factors that we take into account. There’s no element of player control or interactivity in a movie. That adds a layer of complexity in what we do. We, because of the length of gameplay – 50, 70 hours plus of gameplay – it becomes far more difficult to actually rate a game and get people who can actually look at the content and understand the context and then rate the content. We don’t rate gameplay; what we rate are the depictions and what age they’re appropriate for, and put enough information in the content descriptors to let people know what’s in the game. So it’s a different kind of rating system with the factors that we weigh. That being said, there clearly are similarities – we rate on violent content, sexual content, use of controlled substances, these are the kinds of depictions we are looking for.
BB: Occasionally, movie producers “go for” certain ratings… like, people will see a movie as “cooler” if it’s rated PG-13 rather than PG. Does this happen with game ratings?
PV: I don’t know to what extent game ratings are used as a marketing tactic. Maybe, it would be less in our business, but I really don’t know. I think there’s always going to be an aspirational quality to entertainment when it comes to kids – kids are going to want to be playing the games the older kids are playing. But, the older kids are playing E games half the time – Madden, or racing games, or whatever. So, it’s not really about the rating, it’s about the nature of the game and how good the game is, and that always outweighs the rating.
BB: Do you think that developers have found a level of what’s acceptable in a game?
PV: I think creative people are always going to be pushing the envelope, whether it’s music, movies, video games, or books, creative people are creative, and they’re going to be pushing all kinds of boundaries.
BB: Upon release, Night Trap was considered one of the most vile games ever. Today, you see even worse things on Prime-Time TV. Do you think that a valid argument exists that an M-rated game in 1994 would not be an M-rated game in 2004?
PV: I think that ratings creep has been less severe in our business than in films, which have been around for many years. Cable TV has certainly broken some barriers. There’s more “content freedom” in TV and film. First of all, the TV ratings system hasn’t been around for very long; it’s been around less than we have, so there may not be ratings creep in television. But if you look at the television programs over the last 10 years, you’re seeing more extreme content today on TV than ever before. And movie ratings, I think it’s fair to say that what was classified as PG-13 ten years ago is not necessarily what would be classified as PG-13 today. I’m not an expert on other systems, but I do know ours, and I can tell you that our criteria hasn’t changed. And if it had, then you would have seen different kids of fluctuations in percentage breakdowns. I think what’s more clear in our business is that the age of the average gamer has increased.
BB: According to the ESRB website, to be a game rater, experience with children is a requisite, but gaming experience is not. Would you actually prefer someone with no gaming experience who isn’t conditioned to the average game’s content?
PV: We certainly don’t exclude gamers from our rater pool. If they have experience playing games, that’s great. We certainly think that exposure to video games is helpful, but not essential. The ratings system is used less for kids, and it is used more for parents to really understand what they need to be concerned about. Being a gamer doesn’t lend any advantage when it comes to that; they’re basically just identifying content in a video game that parents are typically going to want to know about. That doesn’t require a gaming mentality or gaming experience, necessarily. Is it helpful? Sure. But not a requirement.
BB: Online play is becoming a big thing in gaming. Parents probably don’t know about the potential hazards of playing online. How is the ESRB responding to the growth of online play?
PV: We do rate online games – we rate online-enabled games, and we rate online-only games. We can only rate the content that the publisher creates. We can’t rate user-generated content. For any game that has a component that allows users to generate content, those games that are rated by the ESRB have to include the notice that says “Game Experience May Change During Online Play.” And that’s the most we can do. It just warns parents and warns consumers that with the online component, the experience might change. There might be unexpected material that has not been rated by the ESRB. But beyond that, I’m not sure we can do much else. If parents are really concerned about that, they shouldn’t let their kids play online.
BB: Arcades used to be a big deal in gaming. Now, they’re not. The thing about arcades that was good in the past was that they allowed parents to see the game. Now, they go by your rating almost exclusively. Did that make your job any harder?
PV: I’m not sure what impact the arcade business has ever had on the rating system in terms of the ability of parents to get the information they need. The fact is, the rating system has been around for ten years and parents should be using it. And it’s pretty good – giving you the first stage of information. And if parents are really curious, they should go online and read reviews. In the old days, you couldn’t go online and have access to all kinds of information. Now, with the Internet, you can. And motivated parents, who really want to see what’s going on, there are plenty of options above and beyond our rating system. While arcades could provide a glimpse to a parent, there are probably a lot more information resources available to them today.
BB: Today’s gamers will be the parents of tomorrow. Do you think the gamers of today know and trust the ratings system enough to let it determine what’s appropriate for their kids?
PV: I certainly hope so. Based on our research, people feel that our ratings system is effective. People who compare our system to other ratings systems feel it’s the most effective of the ratings systems out there. So I have to believe that people growing up today – now, I understand that kids don’t like the ratings system because if their parents use it, it might mean that they don’t get the game that they want. But hopefully, as they become adults, and they have children of their own, they’ll begin to realize that the rating system really is an effective tool to understand the games and make good choices for their families.
BB: Do you think today’s generation will have a warped sense of right and wrong – for example, someone who played Mortal Kombat at age 11 and grew up fine, so they let their kid play unsupervised….
PV: The research, for the most part, says there are an awful lot of factors that play into violent behavior or disruptive behavior among children. And the impact that we have, I think, is less important than many others. As kids today become parents of their own, they’ll see that there are many different factors that contribute to a child’s behavior and realize that some kids can probably tolerate certain media better than others, and that it’s really a choice that they have to make, based on the knowledge of their child, based on their ability to handle and process other kinds of experiences. Nobody can make that decision except for them.
BB: If a parent brings home Grand Theft Auto and plays it in front of his or her children, is there a chance that the child might react negatively towards that?
PV: Do I think Vice City is appropriate for young children? No. But it’s very possible that some young children could play Vice City and not have any negative consequences from it. All I can say is that if you look at the growth of video games over the last ten years and you look at the decline in youth crime over the same period; if all you look at is that data, you could draw a correlation there that games help to work out and work through aggression, instead of going out onto the streets and being violent. In real life, you can actually work out some of that aggression through video games. That’s what the data would suggest. But, it’s such an individual thing and, like I said before, there are so many factors that play into a child’s psychology that vary greatly. There are far more important factors in life than the impact that media has. So all of that has to be weighed, which hopefully parents are doing.
BB: A lot of them choose to blame the games, because they’re such an easy target…
PV: It’s easy. Yeah, it is easy.
BB: The NYPD once said about Grand Theft Auto, “We’d rather you kill in the game than on the streets.” The critics would argue that this would actually promote violence.
PV: There’s a really interesting book, if you’re interested in reading it, called “Killing Monsters” by Gerard Jones. This is a very difficult subject to research from a methodology standpoint. This isn’t a research-based book, but it is a theory that, going back to Cops and Robbers and Cowboys and Indians, that kids, particularly young boys, need to work out a lot of aggression. By acting out in a fantasy environment, it’s very healthy. I wish more people read it because it gives them a very different perspective than what the news media is providing them today. It’s a very different view, and it’s worth considering. It makes a lot of sense.
BB: You mentioned boys and aggression issues, but a lot of girls are becoming gamers.
PV: Yes, there are a lot of girl gamers; less so on the consoles; more so online. Certainly, women are dominating online games right now. There have been some games where women have been very successful. But if you look at who’s making games, it’s guys making games for guys. And as long as that’s the case, until there are more women in the creative side of the business, I think you’re going to find a lot of games driven towards males and boys.
BB: Is there potential for the girl group to grow?
PV: Absolutely. When you think about entertainment, entertainment should be mass. And mass includes men and women. I think it’s natural that women become more prominent actors in the video game business. But it’s going to take some time.
BB: Would that make your job any easier? Right now, there are a lot of parents who don’t know anything about gaming, and it’s your job to educate them. In the future, maybe both husband and wife will be knowledgeable about the games their kids play.
BB: Would you welcome that?
Thanks to Patricia Vance for taking the time to discuss these issues.
Appendix 2: Top 50 Selling Games, 1995-2004