My article in Issue 101 of The Escapist, titled The Breasts that Broke the Game, discussed the ESRB’s decision last year to re-rate Oblivion from a “T” for Teen rating to “M” for Mature, based, in part, on the availability of a mod that could render all of the game’s female characters topless. The proximity of the announcement from the ESRB to that year’s E3 trade show meant the gaming press was focusing on other issues, and an important moment in the history of game rating was passed over in the wave of E3 hype.
Response to the article on the forums was heated, indicating there were many sides to this seemingly naked issue. The ESRB took the most vigorous exception to the piece, suggesting that, in fact, boobies did not break the game.
In a follow up interview, ESRB President Patricia Vance spoke with The Escapist on a number of topics, outlining for the first time ever, their specific reasons for re-rating Oblivion (and it really wasn’t just the breasts).
The Escapist: What do you see as the role of the ESRB? The opinion of a number of commentators is the ESRB is a “necessary evil,” though not necessarily in a bad sense. A buffer, perhaps, between the industry and government. Do you agree with that characterization?
Patricia Vance: Our mission first and foremost is to ensure that consumers can make an educated purchase decision when it comes to computer and videogames. … We are the self-regulatory body for the industry; we were put here by the industry. Our policies are created and adopted by the industry. Our marketing guidelines are all industry-adopted. ESRB has a board of directors, which is composed of all the major publishers, and manufacturers of videogames.
I think there is a misperception among some of the gamer community that we’re off doing our own thing. We are a self-regulatory body; we are governed by the industry, but in terms of monitoring the industry, assigning ratings, enforcing guidelines, we operate quite independently from the industry.
The alternative is to have another regulatory body of some kind do it, and not have it as a self-regulatory body but have either a governmental entity or some consumer advocacy group of some kind. I think those alternatives … are a lot worse. … Politics don’t impact us one iota with respect to how we do our job.
TE: Is that a written policy, or is that the philosophy of the organization?
PV: It’s just the reality. We do what we do because it’s right for our mission, and that is providing guidance to consumers. It’s right for the integrity of the system; it is what our rules indicate. It’s what our system is, and that’s why we do it.
TE: Something people are still to this day unclear on is the rating process in general. Can you provide us an overview of what goes into rating a game for the ESRB, and how that may have changed in the last year or so?
PV: The process itself has been pretty similar from the very beginning. With interactive products, now more than ever … playing a game is not necessarily the best way to find pertinent content for rating. Oblivion – obviously, there’s a game where we could have played for weeks and not gotten, frankly, to the scenes that were most pertinent for the rating. That game, like a lot of others, takes a considerably long time to play through; even playing through wouldn’t necessarily guarantee that raters would see all of the pertinent content that they’d need to.
So, we really have to rely on game manufacturers and publishers to fully disclose pertinent content to us. And the system was developed from the beginning to really have publishers bear that burden. The raters themselves, then, wouldn’t have to be game experts per se, but they would have to be able to view all of a game’s pertinent content in a reasonable period of time and then assign age-appropriate ratings and content descriptors.
The system really requires companies, who know the product better than anybody else, to fully disclose content to the ESRB. They have a fairly extensive submissions form that they have to fill out. This forces them to disclose content across all of the categories that we’re interested in. Then they also have to submit video that captures all of the content that they’re describing in that written form, but also within the context of the game.
In other words, we don’t want them just to put together a tape of one extreme cut to another one, we want them to be able to provide context for the storyline, the missions, the features and functionality of a game, so that the raters really can get exposed to a pretty reasonable sense of what they’d experience playing the game. They also have to make sure that the raters see the most extreme content across all of the categories that are relevant to rating; whether it’s violence or language or sexuality or controlled substances, things like that.
It’s really, really very important that companies spend lots of time making sure they understand the product inside and out, and that they fully disclose to us. The burden really is on the publisher.
And then, to talk a little bit about enforcement: We view all the materials. We often times will look at lyrics sheets, we’ll look at scripts, obviously we have the video. Once we issue the rating, if the company doesn’t want to keep the rating that they got from us, they can modify the product and resubmit it to see if they get a different rating. The process then just starts from the beginning. Ultimately they also have the ability to go to an appeals board made up of other game manufacturers, retailers, and other professionals. So that is available to them if they so choose.
Once the product is released with the final rating assigned, we fairly actively test games. We test games after they ship for a number of different reasons. We randomly pick a bunch of titles across all of our rating categories, and test those. We also have very active consumer inquiry forms on our website. We hear a lot from consumers about content they think they may have heard or seen in a game, and want to inquire why it was rated a particular way. We always investigate all of those. We also track a lot of the buzz, the gamer buzz, about specific games to try to hear about subjects that may not have been fully disclosed during the ratings process. Virtually all of those games go through the queue for testing as well.
We have a very active monitoring of compliance after the fact; it’s never a good thing if we have to go out and re-rate a game, but we have to protect the integrity of the rating. We have no choice. The system does not work if we are not protecting consumer’s interests.
TE: How often do companies use the appeal process? Is that a common thing?
PV: Usually by the time we get to the point of rating a game, they’re … testing it and they really don’t have time for an appeal. They’ll modify products and then resubmit them before they’ll go to an appeal. The appeals process has actually never been used, but it is there.
TE: As far as re-ratings go, are the only two that have happened so far been for San Andreas and Oblivion?
PV: We have re-rated a number of games. Most of the time it occurs, it concerns content descriptors. It doesn’t occur with rating categories very often. We just take care of it as part of our business; if that means re-labeling product in the channel or getting companies to remanufacture product, those things are part of our corrective actions. It happens. It doesn’t happen often, but again, like I said, more often than not it happens with content descriptors and not with rating categories.
TE: What about the “locked-out content” policy?
PV: The locked-out content policy began after GTA: San Andreas. It was clear that because of the active gamer community – the modders – that companies could not risk leaving content on discs that could undermine the accuracy of the rating. And so we clarified our policies on locked-out content after GTA: San Andreas to make it absolutely clear to publishers that they can’t leave unfinished or other pertinent content on a disc.
Our policies are quite clear: it’s what’s created by the publisher and included on the disc, not what’s created or introduced by a mod. The mod may unlock it, the mod may make it accessible, but again, going back to the publisher’s burden; putting the accountability on the publisher to fully account for the content that they create and they ship – that’s all we care about.
TE: So, in the future, all titles that have content that’s outside the bounds of the original rating will definitely be reconsidered for rating?
PV: Any content that ships with the product, that the developer put there, the publishers are responsible for. They have to fully disclose that to us. As long as it’s pertinent to rating they have to disclose it to us. Absolutely. And that was the policy that was announced back in July 2005 after GTA: San Andreas broke.
TE: To clarify, then, user-created content in a game more like LittleBigPlanet or Sony’s Home; that is outside the purview of the ESRB?
PV: Yes. We actually have an online rating notice that covers content that is user-generated, that falls outside the boundaries of ESRB ratings. Any game that enables players to download content from other people or communicate with other people while they’re playing carries the notice “Game Experience May Change During Online Play.”
The reality is that the ESRB can’t rate content that is created by other players. We never have, we never tried, nor will we ever. We do feel it is our responsibility, though, to warn consumers that if you play this game online you may be exposed to content that hasn’t been rated by the ESRB. That’s about as far as we’ll go.
TE: The same decision-making process goes for third-party modifications for games, then? The objection to Oblivion was because of the content on the disk, and in the future, modifications that have content outside of the original game rating are not inside the purview of the ESRB at all?
Patricia Vance: Absolutely. It is not. Originally, when Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas broke, we had to hack into the product like everyone else, and determine what actually was created by the publisher and what was modified by the end user. That was a key part of our investigation. We can only enforce the rules based on what the publisher and developers have created.
TE: For Oblivion, specifically in the release about the decision, you said, “It is obviously unfortunate for everyone involved.” You’re referring there to the file on the disc. What was your reaction to that event? What was your reaction to having to make that decision?
PV: As I said earlier, it’s never pleasant to have to go out and re-rate a game. It is an important part of what we do in order to maintain the trust and credibility of the system for consumers. We have to make sure that the ratings we assign are reliable and appropriate.
The situation with Oblivion gets back to what we were discussing earlier about the burden of responsibility being on the publisher or developer to fully disclose content to us. It’s essential that raters see the most extreme depictions of the content, not the minimal depictions. In the case of Oblivion, the first thing we had heard about was the topless characters, where you can actually opt-in to play throughout the whole game with a topless character. That sounded like a mod to us, and we investigated, and we actually called Bethesda to determine if the art file being used in this mod was theirs, and they did confirm that it was. … fully rendered. … It wasn’t a Barbie Doll image, it was fully rendered. … So that was kind of the first part.
While we were investigating that, we actually discovered far more blood and gore than had been disclosed, particularly in the Dark Brotherhood quest line. What Bethesda had originally disclosed to us, as an example: In that section of the game, there is a hanging corpse. What they disclosed to us was a hanging corpse in the dark, pretty far away and without much detail. And yet, when you bring a torch up to the hanging corpse in the actual game, you can see that it’s very mutilated with lots of blood and bones. That was a very different depiction, far more intense, far more extreme than what had been disclosed to us. On top of that, what they submitted to us was very dark and unlit in other places, and there were some rooms that were covered in blood, but you couldn’t tell that from the submission. So we have to rely on what’s submitted to us.
Unfortunately, the video that our raters were exposed to did not fully represent the blood and gore. But when the raters re-reviewed the submission with the more graphic content, it came back as an M rating. That was the primary reason that we went out and re-rated it. It would be problematic to have that level of blood and gore in a “Teen”-rated game. It would have set a whole new precedent that would have impacted rating system; so in terms of parity and consistency, we had to re-rate it.
TE: The raters viewing the video submission, then, were viewing a very dark environment. Do you see any onus on the raters to say things like, “Hey, it’s pretty dark up there, we can’t really see what’s going on”?
PV: The instructions are quite clear on our submission form. [The developers] have to disclose to us the most extreme depictions of the content. So, if you detail that you have hanging corpses in a written submission form for the game, you must expose to us the most visible, most graphic depictions of that in the your video. That was definitely not the case here. Our raters assume that the most extreme depictions are disclosed.
TE: Do you think that the ESRB is generally doing a good job for consumers, and do you see room for improvement for any part of the process?
PV: I’ve been here almost five years, and we’ve made numerous improvements since I’ve been here. I am certain we’ll make more. I’m not sure what they are right now, but our goal is to make it the best rating system it can be.
I think the question of whether we’re doing a good job is a question for consumers to answer. Research, whether it’s the FTC’s or Peter Hart (a very well known research firm), shows in surveys that there is no question that consumers find the rating system to be very effective. The overwhelming majority of parents are using the system. They are using it regularly and finding it to be quite satisfactory.[But] it will never be the be all and end all. We encourage consumers not to stop at the ratings. The ratings are just one quick hit of information. It is not meant to provide every detail in the game. It is meant to give you a general sense about age-appropriateness and also give you an indication about the types of content that caused the rating, or you might be concerned to know about.
We have a whole section on our website called “Parent Resources” which gives listings of places for parents to go to become better informed about the games that they might bring home for their kids. Whether they’re consumer advocacy websites that may review videogames from a parent’s perspective, or a religious perspective, or other sites that offer a gamer’s perspective. We encourage consumers to be better educated and not stop at the ratings.[Ultimately] I think the answer to the question is an unquestionable yes, I think it’s a very effective system.