FEATURE — Spring 2006

As president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, a self-regulatory body for the interactive software industry, Patricia Vance directs the effort to rate interactive media — using clear and concise labeling for both age appropriateness and content.

The Top Player in the Ratings Game

Alumna Patricia Vance presides over the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, educating consumers about computer and video games so they can make smart purchasing decisions.

By Terri McClain

Patricia Vance is an active advocate for parents. Her job? Keeping parents informed about the content in the computer and video games they rent or purchase for their kids. In fact, you may have seen her during the holiday season as she made the talk-show rounds, urging parents to check the ratings and make sure the games children want are “OK to Play.”

As president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a self-regulatory body for the interactive software industry, Vance heads the effort to rate interactive media—using clear and concise labeling—for both age appropriateness and content. “OK to Play?” is a national ad campaign developed and launched by the ESRB to increase parental awareness of the video game rating system.

Like movie ratings, which are imposed from within the film industry, game ratings are not dictated by the government. ESRB was established in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association (formerly the Interactive Digital Software Association) to independently apply and enforce ratings, advertising guidelines, and online privacy principles adopted by the computer and video game industry.

The Entertainment Software Rating Board developed the “OK to Play?” national ad campaign to increase parental awareness of the video game rating system.

“We provide a real public service,” says Vance, “particularly to parents who may not be aware of what’s in a game, may not play games themselves, and may want help when they go out to purchase or rent computer and video games for their kids.

“The ESRB’s key mission is to ensure that consumers have information to make educated purchasing decisions about computer and video games,” she continues. “We have an effective and trusted system in place. Awareness among our key target group—parents of children between the ages of 3 and 17—is close to 80 percent.”

Each year, the organization conducts nationwide research to assess parental awareness and use of the system. ESRB also tests the accuracy of the ratings by exposing parents to a wide range of recent games, then asking them which ratings they think should be applied.

“Making sure our ratings reflect American mainstream tastes and values is very important to us,” Vance says. “Our rating system has two parts, with a rating symbol for age as well as content descriptors. The two parts are what give parents great insight into what’s in a game. Eighty-two percent of the time, parents in the study agreed with the ratings, and another 5 percent actually thought we were being too strict. Although we will likely never get to 100 percent, due to the diversity in our population, we take that research very seriously, and we are pleased that the overwhelming majority of parents concur with our ratings.”

The “OK to Play?” public service campaign has appeared in numerous publications, such as Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide. Because dads are more likely to be gamers themselves, and therefore may have more familiarity with the rating system, many of the ads have been placed in publications that target women, like Good Housekeeping, Oprah, and Ladies Home Journal.

“We also have relationships with virtually all of the major retailers,” Vance says. “So when you’re in a store shopping for video games, you’ll see ratings awareness messages, with an illustration of how to use the rating system, on the display itself, on the racks, or even in brochures available at the checkout.”

Pre-game routine

Vance did not start out with such a career in mind. At Washington University—which she chose in part because her brother, Bill Eisler, A.B. ’74, had attended the University, and, therefore, she knew it as “a great school to get a great liberal arts education”—she earned a degree in international relations and Russian. After graduation in 1978, she moved to Washington, D.C.

“I wanted to go into the Foreign Service,” Vance says. “Ideally, I wanted to be the first woman ambassador to the Soviet Union, but the Soviet Union does not exist anymore, so that job is gone. Now I am kind of glad I didn’t do that.”

Instead, she entered the nonprofit sector in Washington, where she gained experience in film distribution. This led her back home to New York to The Movie Channel and then ABC, where she remained for 18 years, with management responsibilities that included the ABC Internet Group and CD-ROM publishing, as well as educational film and video home distribution.

She left Disney/ABC to run HalfthePlanet.com, an online resource network for people with disabilities.

“It was a compelling way for me to use my Internet experience to build something that gave back to society,” Vance says. Ultimately, she flipped it from a for-profit to a nonprofit organization, pulled back from day-to-day management and took on the role of chairman of the board.

In 2001, she went to work for the Princeton Review, where she headed the Admission Services division that publishes college search books and the review.com Web-site guide to college admissions; she also worked with undergraduate and graduate schools all across the country to put their admissions applications online. Her tenure there coincided with her then 16-year-old daughter’s own college search, making the experience “extraordinarily relevant on a personal level.”

Full-court press

What Vance likes about her work at ESRB is bringing a fundamental service to consumers while working within an industry where she can bring her years of media experience to bear.

“I think we do great work,” Vance says. “I also think there are a lot of misperceptions about the industry. We are continually trying hard to dispel those myths.”

Myth number one, she says, is that the industry is marketing violent games to children. “It’s just not true,” Vance says. “Most retailers have store policies not to sell mature-rated games to kids, and when 9 out of 10 purchases involve an adult, the real issue boils down to parental responsibility.”

Vance says the second myth is that all video games are violent. “With the average age of a gamer today being 30, we are certainly seeing some more mature products on the market. And the games themselves are becoming more sophisticated technically, with more realistic graphics,” she continues. “Yet, only 12 percent of the games that we rate are rated M for mature, which are for ages 17 and older. The majority of games are still rated E for everyone.”

Myth number three is that video games are inherently harmful to children’s development. “I would prefer, as a parent, that my child interact with entertainment rather than passively experience it for extended lengths of time,” Vance says. “That being said, as with everything, games should be played in moderation. Most video games force the player to tap into all kinds of puzzle-solving and strategizing skills. One has to think about the short- and long-term ramifications and consequences of making a move, and there is something very stimulating and challenging about that.” Vance also states that while there is no research proving a causal relationship between playing violent games and behaving violently in reality, there have been many studies that prove certain therapeutic and healthy outcomes from playing video games.

As a parent herself, Vance stresses the role of parents in responsibly monitoring children’s activities. Her job, she says, is to help provide parents with the tools they need to make informed decisions about which games are appropriate for their families. The rest is up to them.

“I’m proud of the service that we provide to consumers,” Vance says, “and I’m proud of the job that we do, ensuring that the industry is marketing their products responsibly. It’s interesting and challenging work, and it definitely keeps me motivated.”

ESRB Rating Symbols
Titles rated EC (Early Childhood) have content that may be suitable for ages 3 and older. Contains no material that parents would find inappropriate.

Titles rated E (Everyone) have content that may be suitable for ages 6 and older. Titles in this category may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, and/or infrequent use of mild language.

Titles rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) have content that may be suitable for ages 10 and older. Titles in this category may contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language, and/or minimal suggestive themes.

Titles rated T (Teen) have content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, and/or infrequent use of strong language.

Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, and/or strong language.

Titles rated AO (Adults Only) have content that should only be played by persons 18 years and older. Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity.

Titles listed as RP (Rating Pending) have been submitted to the ESRB and are awaiting final rating. (This symbol appears only in advertising prior to a game’s release.)

Terri McClain is a free-lance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.