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Unlevel playing field for video games?

Critics have unfairly turned "Grand Theft" and other games into political footballs, says rating-agency head Patricia Vance.

The video game industry found itself embroiled in another controversy earlier this summer that invited denunciations of excess and calls for a government inquiry.

The ruckus broke out after the public learned that top-selling video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" included sexually explicit scenes that could be accessed using code that quickly spread across the Internet.

"GTA: San Andreas" had already been seen as a fairly extreme game, given that its players could routinely shoot police officers, beat up prostitutes, carjack at will and more. As such, the gaming industry's rating agency, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), had given it a rating of M, for mature. But in the wake of the revelations about the additional, sexual, content, the ESRB was forced to change the rating to A, for adults only. Such a rating would likely mean a big drop in future sales for the game, and indeed, it has been banned outright in Australia.

Before long, the so-called "Hot Coffee" scandal, named after the modification that unlocked the extreme scenes, became a hot news item, and fodder for politicians, who used it to attack the gaming industry. Sen. Hillary Clinton seized on the scandal and castigated the game's publisher, Rockstar Games, for distributing immoral material.

But through it all, the ESRB kept its cool, maintaining that the Hot Coffee modification meant nothing more than that "GTA: San Andreas" needed a different rating. Meanwhile, the ESRB kept on reviewing new games and bestowing upon them one of the six distinct ratings it gives for games, including C for early childhood, E for everyone, T for teens and the aforementioned M and A.

CNET News.com spoke with ESRB President Patricia Vance about the "GTA" scandal, the fallout, the board's ratings process and more.

Q: The "Grand Theft Auto" situation has put a spotlight on the industry and the rating system. Are you comfortable with that?
Vance: Yeah, the ESRB is proud of its rating system and the way it serves the public interest to be better informed about what's in video games. If the publicity surrounding the "GTA: San Andreas" situation raised awareness, and then consequently use, of the rating system, it's a good thing.

What is the proper role for ESRB in setting guidelines for game developers to follow?
Vance: We don't set guidelines for developers to follow. We rate games, and ensure (that) consumers have the information necessary to make educated purchase decisions about games before they bring them home.

How much discussion goes on between game publishers and the ESRB before games are rated?
Vance: Our ratings are assigned based on the consensus of independent raters with no contact or relationship whatsoever with the development community. So when we issue ratings, we're issuing them based on the consensus of those independent raters. If a publisher does not want the rating that has been assigned, they can make changes to the product as they see fit and resubmit the product.

So the responsibility for getting the rating a publisher wants falls entirely on the publisher's shoulders?
Vance: Yeah, our rating categories are (well) defined. We also conduct seminars with the industry on a regular basis to provide them with information about how we assign ratings to which games, and we illustrate for them content that has been assigned different ratings. But at the end of the day, obviously, it's a creative form of expression and developers will create what they choose to. It's that creation that we rate. They're not following guidelines per se from us. They are following their own creative visions for the product and then submitting it to us so we can accurately label it for consumers.

Do you think the criticism that has been leveled at Rockstar Games over the "GTA" situation has been warranted?
Vance: Once it was determined that (the Hot Coffee content) was actually created by Rockstar, we had to correct the (rating) so that the consumers had accurate information on which to base a purchase decision. But in terms of intent or right or wrong, that really isn't a place that the ESRB ventures into. It's not our mission, and it's not our role to judge. It's just our role to make sure that the industry provides the information necessary to consumers and that the rules and regulations we have in place are followed.

After the Hot Coffee scandal, it seemed like the whole gaming industry was getting slammed.
Vance: I think we're in an environment right now which is quite politically charged and there are all sorts of criticisms leveled at the industry. Some are based on facts, and some are not.

Was it fair for politicians (like Hillary Clinton) to try to make hay out of the Hot Coffee situation?
Vance: The Hot Coffee controversy ended up being a political football for both parties, and that's unfortunate.

There's plenty of extreme content in lots of different genres of entertainment. Have video games been singled out?
Vance: I think there are different standards that are applied to our industry, particularly by nongamers. There are assumptions that games are (only) for kids, and those are clearly not based on fact. The average age of a gamer today is 30, and our industry has very strict rules about marketing, targeting marketing to children and making sure no products rated inappropriate for children are marketed to them. We enforce those guidelines very strictly and very actively, so I think that yes, there are different standards that are being applied, and I think most of the time that's based out of (people) just not being familiar with the facts and not being gamers themselves.

Are there studies about how the ratings resonate with parents?
Vance: We do nationwide research with Peter Hart, a very well-respected opinion polling company. (Hart found) that 54 percent of parents never allow their children to play Mature-rated games, while 37 percent sometimes do, which says that the overwhelming majority of parents are limiting what their kids are playing and making choices that are appropriate for their own children. Eighty-three percent of parents agree with the ratings that we assign and another 5 percent actually think we're being too strict. In a country as diverse as ours, I would say that those statistics indicate a high success rate for the rating system.

There was a study out the other day showing that there was no provable link between video games and violence. What do you think of that?
Vance: Well, if you look at the research on this subject--the surgeon general did one back in 2000; various courts have done them in the state of Washington; and the government of Australia has done similar surveys--and no organization of any stature has concluded that there is a causal relationship between playing video games and behavior, particularly when it comes to violent behavior.

And yet there's this perception that video games lead to violence.
Vance: If you look at the crime statistics over the last 10 years, where you've had the largest increase in penetration of games in this country, you've seen that crime has dropped precipitously, whereas playing video games has increased exponentially. It suggests that actually there has been a drop in criminal behavior since the introduction of video games.

So the popular perception is wrong?
Vance: Back to the political argument. If you want to create a picture that's not based on fact, you can draw that picture, but it's not based on fact. The media reports what they want to report, and the politicians say what they want to say, and people who are critics of the industry will continue to be critics of the industry.

Going back to the "GTA" situation, do you think in the aftermath, there will be changes to the way the ESRB rates games or examines them?
Vance: Well the criteria have not changed nor will they change for rating assignments. The one thing that will change is that, particularly for PC games, publishers will be required to disclose all pertinent content, whether it's playable or not, that ships with the disc. That doesn't mean that you have to disclose everything on a disc regardless of whether or not it's playable, but (you do) if it's pertinent, which certainly was the case with the Hot Coffee scenes. If you plan on leaving it on the disc, you have to disclose it, because the hackers are sophisticated and the hackers will find it. The situation with Hot Coffee, it wasn't the (hacker's) modification that caused us to change the rating, it was the fact that this content existed on the disc and it was made accessible through modification, and was not disclosed.

Do you expect game developers to be responsible about this new rule?
Vance: They obey. They obey all of our rules. They keep track of all their assets. They know what's been developed for their games. If it's pertinent and they haven't submitted it to us and they intend to leave it on the disc, they need to submit it to us, and they know that. We don't have problems with publishers following our rules. We're here for them, you know. We're their self-regulatory body. They're the ones who put us here and we're here to help them as much as they help us.

Do you think that because of the rating system, parents should feel safe letting their children play video games without supervision?
Vance: We never recommend that parents let their kids play video games without supervision. We like parents to monitor what their kids are playing. I think the rating system is accurate and is consistent with mainstream American taste and values. Research proves that out.

The rating system is certainly the one tool that parents have consistently on the package and in all advertising that provides them with basic information about what's in the game. The one area that parents particularly need to monitor is what their kids are doing online. Whether it's who they're playing their games with online, or when they're in the online peer-to-peer matching environments that they can play in. I think that as the Hot Coffee controversy showed, parents need to be vigilant, particularly about PC games and their kids going out and downloading modifications to those PC games that might fairly significantly change the content they thought their children were being exposed to. It's more about how their kids are using games and less about what's actually on the box. The material on the box is accurate and complete and they should certainly be able to trust that.

Do you let your own children play video games without supervision?
Vance: I do have a sense of what they play; I do supervise them, although of course you can't supervise them all the time. But I also trust my kids. They're exposed to lots of different types of content, whether it's on television or in books, in magazines, on the Internet, in school, on the playground and at their friends' houses, that I can't control and I think the role that I have as a parent is to teach them right from wrong. They're not going to learn that from anything they're exposed to on television, on film or on their computer. They're going to learn that from me.