GamesBeat publishes this exclusive excerpt from Content rated by: An oral history of the ESRB. The previous chapters can be found here.
To help commemorate its 25th anniversary, the Entertainment Software Classification Board (ESRB) contacted Blake J. Harris, the best-selling author of Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the battle that defined a generation Y The history of the future: Oculus, Facebook and the revolution that swept virtual reality document the behind-the-scenes origins of the video game rating system and how it has evolved during the last quarter of a century. Content rated by: An oral history of the ESRB It provides testimonies of the key people involved in the creation of the ESRB and its development in one of the best examples of industry self-regulation in the country.
PART 4: Evolution, expansion and application (or lack thereof)
On September 16, 1994, the ESRB opened its doors and began assigning ratings. Due to the relatively poor record keeping at that time, which according to current employees was once just “an Excel spreadsheet,” there is still a persistent mystery about which games were actually the first to receive rating assignments.
Leaving aside the lack of records, the ESRB continued to focus on assigning ratings, and gradually became a more recognizable part of the industry. Unlike the launch of the new industry trade show, there was no such unique moment of gratification. But a year after facing the threat of government regulation, the worst case scenario seemed unlikely.
DON JAMES (NINTENDO): I do not remember that it was a formal process in which the government said: “Okay, we are not going to bother you because they have done it.” I think it slowly faded away. Once the classification system came out, the irons in the fire cooled.
Meanwhile, as the threat of government regulation dissipated, the ESRB faced a new immediate challenge: a competitive qualification board called “RSAC”. RSAC was short for “Recreational Software Advisory Council” and had been created by the Software Publishers Association. (SPA) as an alternative to the ESRB.
Like the ESRB, RSAC was an independent and self-regulatory body whose mission was to inform potential consumers about the nature (and suitability) of the content it evaluated. But it differed from the ESRB in significant ways, some of which are noted in this excerpt from a 1994 article in the Washington Post entitled, “The video game and computer games industries separated into ratings.”
LISA SCHNAPP (ESRB): There was a competitive board, RSAC, so we were always trying to eliminate them and take their business.
Schnapp was one of the first to join the small ESRB team of Pober. Having come from a series of administrative jobs in the media such as Warner Bros., CBS News and Polygram / Mercury Records, Schnapp initially served as a trade everything in the ESRB. Over time, their role would evolve greatly, but at the beginning, it was simply organizational survival.
LISA SCHNAPP (ESRB): When I took the job, my father told me: “Do you know what you’re doing? Do you think this organization is going to be present for a long time?” And I really didn’t know. In the early days, we were very small. There were hardly any people here. In fact, the person who scored was not even a full-time employee. Therefore, it did not help that this competing table existed. They mostly did PC stuff, and we mostly did console stuff; but we were trying to be the only leaderboard.
RILEY RUSSELL (SEGA): It was a touch-and-go for a time when the rating system would win.
At this time, Riley Russell, who had been Sega’s Director of Business Affairs, had left to join a different company that planned to enter the console race: Sony.
RILEY RUSSELL (SONY): the key difference [between the two ratings boards] it was that the PC kids didn’t want to do anything other than self-assessments. Which led Sony to make the decision that, to be in our system, you must use the ESRB. I think Sega and Sony deserve credit, but Sony especially knew that the ratings would be important. At that time, it was not certain that PlayStation was going to win when things started. But only through the chain of events, we went from being the “third platform” for which everyone developed, but due to the delay of Sega’s tools and the limited launch, we became “the place to be”. off.
When Sony took off, so did the ESRB, which raises the question of why Sony, in such a fragile and uncertain stage of its console business, felt the need to take such a strong stance.
RILEY RUSSELL (SONY): Previously, Sony had manufactured Betamax players and, ultimately, recorders. And they had an experience in that industry, and I don’t want to say that this is too important, but … after that experience, we realized that it was important to leave as much content as possible on their platform. Because VHS probably won because of pornography. So we wanted to have sharper adult content. Because we recognized (as Sega had recognized) that the industry was aging; It wasn’t just a toy for children. In the end it was a sense of responsibility. I think Sega was going to take that route anyway, but whether we were days or weeks ahead of them, we [at Sony] They were the first to do it. Sony saw it as: we were entering the market, we had a new console, we wanted to have something to offer families peace of mind. Sony is reputed to make safe and reliable products … you know: we wanted to be “the IBM of gaming space”.
In the mid-1990s, the adoption of the ESRB rating system skyrocketed. By the way, during this time, the ESRB presented its first organizational pet:
At the end of the decade, with a much safer base, the ESRB began to really expand.
LISA SCHNAPP (ESRB): Arthur always sought to grow and assume things. For example: the privacy department …
ARTHUR POBER (ESRB): I didn’t want us to be just “the grading service.” What we were was a full service organization to ensure that this industry is regulated and regulated well. And I am never very satisfied, I am always looking for the next problem. So what was the next number? The question of privacy. So I put together a special unit that would make us a stamp supplier.
In 1999, ESRB launched its online Privacy certification service. The following year, Pober created another new group, the Advertising Review Council, which Lisa would lead.
LISA SCHNAPP (ESRB): I always said: “If you want a paper tiger in this job, I’m not the right person.” I will not sit down and turn around. So I was very happy to assume that role. It’s a difficult job, but important: make sure that all marketing meets industry guidelines.
Given all the money that game companies put into marketing, it is not surprising that Schnapp, as the face of the industry’s advertising application, becomes a known figure among the industry. And that his role would lead to situations like …
LISA SCHNAPP (ESRB): I remember once I went to give this presentation and someone said, “Are you Lisa Schnapp?” “Yes”. “Hey, you’re famous!” I mean, I am the person who goes out and issues the violations. So, many people know me, yes. Oh, and there was this one again, this is one of my favorites, someone wrote me a letter, and this guy was really mad at something, so he called me “The Supreme Lord of the Dark Side” [laughs]. I’ve always liked that a lot.
RILEY RUSSELL (SONY): Overall, I think the ESRB was well executed from the beginning. There was hiccups, nobody had done it before, nobody really knew how to “rate” a game, but I think Arthur did a good job. He launched it. And he got us what we needed.
In many facets, this was true and, as such, the ESRB continued to prosper. But below the surface, there was a crack in the armor, which began to become a problem towards the end of 2000.
Specifically: in September 2000, when the FTC published a “Mystery Shopper” survey. What they had done was send “undercover” buyers (between the ages of 13 and 16) and send these children to stores, not accompanied by their parents, to see if retailers applied rating systems. To find out, these mysterious shoppers would try to buy one of the following four entertainment products:
As such, this operation was not intended for the gaming industry. But compared to those other industries, compliance with video game ratings proved to be the worst. The following year (2001), the FTC published another mystery shopper survey and the results were similar.
In 2002, IDSA, which was on the cusp of its own restructuring and would soon change its name to “Entertainment Software Association” (ESA), decided it was time to find a new president to lead the ESRB.
DOUG LOWENSTEIN (ESA): The problem was that it was a really complicated search. Because it’s not as if there were a hundred people running self-regulatory rating boards. There isn’t really an obvious group of candidates out there. And that made it difficult, very, very difficult …
The next four parts of Content rated by: An oral history of the ESRB they include how ratings are assigned, gaining the support of video game retailers and how ESRB created a scalable global rating solution to meet the needs of mobile applications and other digital game showcases. Part 5 will be published next week on the ESRB blog.
Blake J. Harris is the best selling author of Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the battle that defined a generation, which is currently being adapted for television by Legendary Entertainment.