Talking to the ESA

BY Michael Ubaldi  //  June 2, 2009

On video games, the law, and American culture.


he Entertainment Software Association is most widely known for its ownership and yearly production of E3. The organization's charter and daily purpose, however, "serving the business and public affairs needs" of video gaming companies, import with the gravity of economic and constitutional challenges that have continued for nearly two decades. Where is the industry and how far has it come? What do coming years hold for interactive entertainment? I asked Ken Doroshow, general counsel of the ESA.

The video game, now thirtysomething, has so far spared a swelling part of the world economy the worst of a recession. More than half a dozen states have passed laws regulating game sales, all of them enjoined and overturned. Gaming once considered a novelty or worse, pops up in public libraries, college curricula and on the agenda for Family Night. When the Entertainment Software Association looks at the state of the industry, what does it see?

We see exactly what you described. In less than a generation, video games have evolved from a niche market into a mass medium. Today, games are enjoyed in a majority of American homes by players of all ages and backgrounds. Video games are also being utilized for more than just entertainment. Games are helping to secure advances in health care, education, workforce training and the arts. In addition, elected officials and other opinion leaders, members of the media and the general public are becoming increasingly aware and appreciative of the entertainment software industry's many positive technological, social and economic contributions. I think it's safe to say that video games have gone mainstream, and that's a good thing for all.

In 1994, several months after inimical Congressional hearings, the ESA (then the Interactive Digital Software Association), established the Entertainment Software Ratings Board: the industry's first, and continuing, effort at self-regulation. How has the ESA adapted this general effort over 15 years? Where has it succeeded? Where can it be improved?

The ESRB rating system is an enormously successful program. It has been adopted by virtually all video game manufacturers, serves as an effective tool for parents and retailers alike, and is broadly supported by policy makers. In fact, the most recent Federal Trade Commission report to Congress on entertainment marketing practices shows that over 80 percent of parents are aware of the ESRB system and over 70 percent of parents use it in making their buying decisions. Over 70 percent of parents use the ESRB system in making their buying decisions.Those numbers have only improved since that report, making the ESRB an unqualified success and a model for rating systems in general.

But, even with these successes, we are doing all we can to continue to improve this system and make it even more effective. Recent innovations include a mobile game rating site and the addition of detailed content descriptions to all game reviews. We remain committed to ensuring that the ESRB system is as comprehensive and widely supported as possible, so that parents are empowered with the information they need to make the right decisions for their children.

At a seminar I attended last year, the American Teleservices Association's Tim Searcy warned — I paraphrase — that in an age of consumer activism, an industry perceived as indulgent or indifferent risks sending dissatisfied consumers to the state. Do you agree? If parents need information about what their children play, who can best help?

Eighty-five percent of all parents (gamer and non-gamer alike) who vote say that they, not government, retailers or game publishers, should take the most responsibility for monitoring children's exposure to games that may have content inappropriate for minors. That is why we are working to provide parents with the tools they need to keep their kids safe while gaming and online. The ESRB rating system and the parental controls that are included in game consoles are two key resources in this effort. The ESA Foundation is also a proud supporter of Web Wise Kids, a unique organization that teaches kids about essential safety and privacy issues online — such as social networking, blogging, online romances, bullying, cyber-stalking, and identify theft.

As with other forms of entertainment, government should not be the authority on what games people can and cannot play. Well-informed parents can best make those decisions for their own families.

Last July, New York promulgated a law mandating console parental controls by 9/2010, requiring "clearly displayed" rating stickers, and calling for a state-appointed "Advisory Council" to watch the ESRB's work and "make recommendations thereon." NYCLU legislative director Robert Perry called the legislation a "back door" to deeper regulation. But no legal challenges have been raised. Why has the ESA, for its part, held back?

The law you refer to was signed into law in July 2008. The ESA strongly opposed the legislation and activated Video Game Voters Network members to voice their opposition to its arbitrary restrictions. We were successful in removing a provision in the original bill that would have made it a felony for any sales associate to sell a "violent" video game. It is important to note that New York imposed the same rating sticker requirement on movie DVDs over 20 years ago.

Government should not be the authority on what games people can and cannot play.Nonetheless, this new law unfairly singles out the video game industry over other forms of media and entertainment.

While the law is a clear overreach by the State of New York, it remains to be seen whether it has any tangible effect on games as they currently exist. The industry already employs a rating label regime through the ESRB, and most consoles already feature parental controls. Nevertheless, we will continue to monitor the situation and further engage in the issue if necessary.

More and more parents were gamers before starting a family. New media allows developers to convey information not possible fifteen, ten or even five years ago. Can this demystify — and where needed, destigmatize — the video game?

Yes. Younger parents grew up playing computer and video games such as the first iterations of Super Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog and educational adventures like Oregon Trail. That familiarity with games and the likelihood that families are exposed to information across many communication channels does help increase awareness and acceptance of video games as a part of everyday life.

Our research indicates that 65 percent of American households play computer or video games and 26 percent of gamers are over the age of 50. Computer and video games are a widely accepted form of entertainment. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, games are now more than just entertainment and play a significant role in medical research, education, job training, and the economy as a whole.

Plus, advancements in technology have afforded computer and video game developers and publishers opportunities to create more lively and interactive games. By offering games that are more engaging than 20 years ago, the computer and video game industry has succeeded in attracting a broader gamer audience and inclusion of the industry as part of mainstream society.

Despite stronger cultural acceptance, video games are repeatedly the target of alarmist reporting, most notably a recent Iowa State University study branding every tenth gamer an addict. Was that a public relations setback, or an opportunity for awareness?

The publicity around Dr. Gentile's study and others like it is never a "public relations setback." It is a chance to share information, refute inaccuracies and talk about the many personal, Dr. Gentile's study offered a chance to share information, refute inaccuracies and talk about benefits of video games.familial and societal benefits of playing computer and video games. Depending on how or where a study is released and publicized, it can be an opportunity to engage new audiences including researchers, consumers and reporters.

As for the Iowa State study specifically, we object to the findings of the study for a number of reasons including the flaws in the study's population sampling methods. We have shared our thoughts on this subject with Dr. Gentile, the National Institute on Media and the Family as well as the American Psychological Association.

Jack Thompson is a kind of curse word for gamers. He steals headlines and draws attention on cable news. But he doesn't pass or sign laws. Is Jack Thompson a distraction?

There will always be those who are dedicated to their cause. It's not a matter of a distraction, but rather another opportunity for us to dispel myths and continuously inform lawmakers, the media, the blogosphere and consumers about the reality of gaming and the many ways in which the video and computer game industry contributes positively to society.

Video games are an industry that employs thousands of Americans across the country and contributes millions of dollars to the economy. As video games continue to be accepted as a mainstream form of expression just like music, film and books, our job becomes that much easier.

The ESA recently fine-tuned its choice of a Washington, DC representative. Although a video game law has neither been signed by a President nor passed by Congress, the capital is an important place. Which lawmakers have shown support for the video games as a means of expression? Whom can ESA count among the industry's allies?

The ESA is dedicated to serving the business and public affairs needs of computer and video game publishers and, as a result, government relations are at the heart of what we do. The ESA is continuously working to educate lawmakers about societal and economic contributions of the industry.Our federal advocacy on behalf of the entertainment software industry involves a broad variety of issues including intellectual property protection, anti-piracy enforcement, and game ratings.

We are also active on the state level, where several states including Texas, Michigan and Louisiana have recently passed legislation providing tax incentives that encourage the continued growth of our industry.

With the make-up of Congress and many state legislatures changing every two years, the ESA looks to build broad support for the industry's initiatives and we are continuously working to educate all lawmakers about the societal and economic contributions of the industry.

Social mores change, at a rate that seems to be accelerating. Video games have mostly benefited over time, though change isn't always for the best. How is the ESA preparing for the next five years?

The next five years promise to be very exciting for the entertainment software industry and game enthusiasts. Video games continue to grow as the leisure activity of choice for millions of Americans. We are also looking at more video game companies offering their products through digital download and the expansion of broadband online gaming, to name two technological advancements. The ESA is committed to staying on top of these trends. Our goal is to maximize the opportunities for our members to embrace and build on these new technologies and to help the video game industry continue to reach even greater heights. We're very bullish about the future of this industry.

(Editor's note: Special thanks to Dan Hewitt for arranging this interview.)

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