For nearly two decades the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has been the primary ratings platform for video game content in North America. Formed as a response to legislators critical of the mature content in video games, the ratings system has become an example of responsibility for the industry, showing that it cares about informing consumers about the content in its products.

Traditionally games are rated by professional testers, but in today’s digital age doing so with every game that releases for mobile platforms would be practically impossible. Thus, the ESRB has launched their own automatic rating tool for developers to submit ratings themselves. We caught up with ESRB president Patricia Vance to find out more.

[a]list: Give me details of the automatic rating tool.

Patricia Vance: ESRB has historically assigned each rating by having a group of at least three trained raters review a game’s “pertinent content,” which basically amounts to anything that has the potential to impact a rating assignment. This includes not only the typical content like violence, language, sexual content, drugs, etc., but also elements like the game’s context, objectives, reward system, degree of player control, graphic realism and other related factors. This process is quite thorough, and continues to serve us well for packaged/boxed games. But it is relatively labor-intensive, and is not scalable enough to handle the exploding volume of digitally delivered games that we now see in the marketplace.

In order to address the digital ecosystem, we realized that we would have to adapt our rating process. So we set out to devise a process that was streamlined but still highly reliable, low-cost and easy for a developer to use. That effort culminated in April 2011 when we began using an innovative “Short Form” to generate automated rating assignments for games that are only going to be made available via console download. The form itself consists of a series of basic questions about a game’s pertinent content, which generates follow-up questions where necessary. For instance, if a developer specifies that their game contains violence, they will then be asked whether the violence is directed at humans or other types of characters, whether it is fantastical or realistic, whether there is blood and gore, and so on. The form ascertains the key factors that impact rating assignments by asking questions in an objective fashion. In other words, we don’t ask developers to assess the degree of violence in their game, since that’s a subjective measure. Instead, we ask objective questions about the factors that we know can have an exacerbating or mitigating effect on rating assignments.

The ESRB’s Short Form rating process uses a questionnaire that drills down into key content areas to determine rating assignments.

Once the developer completes the form, they receive their rating immediately.

The fundamental difference between the traditional Long Form process and this new Short Form is that we’ve shifted our manpower from reviewing content prior to its release to conducting post-release review as a means for confirming that rating assignments are appropriately assigned. The advantage of the digital marketplace is that you can affect a rating change post-release much more quickly and effectively than you can with packaged product sold at retail.

The system performed exceedingly well upon its initial launch for console downloadable games, and later in 2011 we were selected by CTIA, the U.S. trade association for the wireless industry, to administer a comparable system for use with mobile apps. In October 2012 we introduced the next phase in this evolution: our Digital Rating Service, which allows developers of all digital-only games to obtain an ESRB rating using the Short Form without having to pay a fee. Eventually we expect to transition to a global version of this process, whereby developers can utilize a single form to obtain ratings from the authorized rating boards in multiple territories at once. The goal all along has been to evolve our process so it is conducive to the practical realities of the marketplace, and ultimately to foster a consistently-applied rating standard that consumers can rely on regardless of where or how they play.

[a]list: So, the decision not to charge fees for the mobile ratings was an attempt to make the ratings more universal and accessible?

Patricia Vance: Essentially, yes. But more importantly, it was meant to address the needs of the typical developer of a downloadable game and app. And the storefronts themselves would prefer not to burden developers, especially the smaller, independent ones, with additional costs. It’s also important to note that our ratings are voluntary. Although game consoles and major retailers of boxed games require ESRB ratings on product published on their systems or sold in their stores, this is not the case in the rest of the digital ecosystem. To better facilitate broader adoption of our ratings across all game devices, we sought to eliminate impediments that might discourage getting one. As a result, we decided that the system would not charge individual developers a fee, and at the same time set out to make it as easy and accessible as possible. We strongly believe in the benefits of providing consumers with a consistent and familiar ratings scheme for all games, regardless of where a consumer accesses them. We also think it’s good for developers to have one rating standard for their game across all devices on which it is published. And the Federal Trade Commission agrees, having advocated for utilizing a single standard for apps rather than the current patchwork quilt of ratings in its most recent report to Congress on the marketing of violent entertainment to children.

[a]list: Many features of the ratings are the same, but some are unique to the mobile medium. Were these qualifiers decided by the ESRB or did you consult with game makers? Why do you feel notices about online interactions are important?

Patricia Vance: It was mainly the result of consumer research we have been regularly conducting with parents. We are finding that parents have significant concerns related to their children’s privacy when it comes to playing online and in mobile games, particularly the sharing of personal information or location and the opportunity to interact with players other than friends. They consider it essential that a rating system disclose information up front – not just when using an app – about these interactive elements. In fact, two thirds of them consider this information just as important as content and age-appropriateness. These findings made it clear that we had an opportunity to expand the guidance we provide consumers as it relates to managing their family’s games and apps. So we added new notices, called Interactive Elements, that advise about the sharing of user-provided personal information with third parties (“Shares Info”), the sharing of the user’s location with other users (“Shares Location”), and the potential exposure to user-generated content through online interactions (“Users Interact”). At our inception, we were the first two-part rating system, offering consumers information about both age-appropriateness as well as content. Now, with the advent of Interactive Elements, we are the first three-part rating system offering information that goes beyond age and content.

For digitally delivered games and apps the ESRB uses a three-part rating system that includes new notices about “Interactive Elements.”

[a]list: Detail why you think it is important for the ESRB to evolve to digital releases.

Patricia Vance: Since ESRB was established we’ve enjoyed extremely strong and broad support from the video game industry, and that support has translated into tangible benefits for consumers. It has allowed for consistency in rating assignments as opposed to having conflicting ratings on different platforms. It has enabled game makers to use a single rating system in their advertising and marketing materials, and to display ratings in a standardized way. All of this consistency has helped generate very high levels of consumer awareness, understanding, and use of ESRB ratings, and has simplified a parent’s job when it comes to determining if a game is suitable for their child. Our rationale for wanting broader use of ESRB ratings for digitally delivered games is no different: consumers, developers and platforms are all best served by a consistently applied and trusted standard.

From an industry perspective, the ESRB has helped protect creative freedom through effective self-regulation. By successfully fulfilling its mission to ensure consumers have the information necessary to determine which games are appropriate for their family and that game publishers responsibly market their product, the industry has been able to fend off the prospect of onerous legislation or other threats of regulation. The Brown v. EMA/ESA Supreme Court case is a prime example. Our rating system was recognized in that decision as an effective tool that consumers can use to help manage their children’s games. This made the prospect of a legislative remedy unnecessary because the ESRB represented an existing, less restrictive means than governmental regulation. We’re already beginning to see some regulatory concerns arise for digital marketplaces, especially around privacy issues. So we believe that these digital marketplaces would benefit from utilizing the ESRB ratings, particularly with the addition of Interactive Elements. And we certainly believe that consumers and developers alike would benefit from having a consistent standard.

[a]list: If you could inform developers and publishers of any one thing for the mobile submissions, what would it be?

Patricia Vance: I’ve always gotten the sense that, in general, developers view ESRB as a necessary evil, a nuisance to be endured when bringing a game to market. My hope is that this new system will help to change that perception because the Short Form is so simple and fast, and, not to mention, free. No matter what type of game a developer is producing, there’s value in offering consumers ESRB ratings and, frankly, they’ve come to expect it. Our new digital rating process provides a ready-made means for doing that, and it costs the developer very little in time and nothing in money.

Although not the majority by any means, certain developers view the ESRB as a censor, imposing limitations on the content that game creators can include in their game. We feel that effective content labeling can actually foster creativity. Generally speaking, where there is an absence of an established, credible rating standard, retailers, storefronts and platform holders tend to impose their own standards. These aren’t always especially transparent or clear, nor are they consistent. This kind of ambiguity and variance can result in developers self-censoring to avoid problems. Utilizing a credible third party like ESRB for ratings makes the process much clearer for developers and allows them to create their content more freely by providing a uniform, third-party standard that both platforms and developers can support and defer to.

[a]list: What’s the most challenging thing about mobile game ratings? Would you say it’s the sheer number of titles released any given day?

Patricia Vance: The volume hasn’t been an issue since the system we’ve put in place is designed to be scalable and manage high volume. Of course, we still need to monitor for accuracy, but we believe we will be able to identify potential issues fairly quickly. I would say the greatest challenge will be gaining broad adoption outside of the traditional game platforms. We’re making progress, but there is certainly more work to be done. Our goal is simple – to make sure that consumers everywhere in the U.S. and Canada have access to ESRB ratings regardless of the device used to play games.