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The Political Game: ESRB's extreme makeover

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Each week Dennis McCauley contributes The Political Game, a column on the collision of politics and video games:

Have you taken notice of the kinder, gentler ESRB?

In recent months the video game industry's ratings board seems to have been quietly, yet determinedly, remaking itself into a more open, inclusive organization. Not that they would ever admit it, but as Bob Dylan sang, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."

Of course, from the dreadful Hot Coffee summer of 2005, there was really no place for the ESRB to go but up. Back then the ratings board was at an all-time low. The ESRB was besieged by all manner of political, cultural and media critics, including Senator Hillary Clinton, various members of Congress and a determined California Assemblyman named Leland Yee who exploited the ill will caused by the Hot Coffee incident to push through video game sales legislation in the very heartland of the U.S. video game industry.



Things stayed bad for the ESRB, too, for a long time. In November of that year Dr. David Walsh and the National Institute on Media and the Family tagged the organization with an "F" in its 2005 Annual Video Game Report Card. A few months later a congressional subcommittee chaired by Florida Republican Cliff Stearns gave ESRB president Patricia Vance a very rough going over.

Since then, however, it's been a whole different ballgame. Surprisingly, Vance agreed to participate in David Walsh's first Annual Video Game Ratings Summit in October. While I'm betting she wasn't thrilled about spending a weekend in Minnesota with a couple of dozen skeptics, her participation was a significant olive branch, signaling a new willingness to at least parlay with critics on game content issues.

The ESRB also scored some badly-needed political capital in 2006 by persuading a pair of state attorneys general to publicly support the rating system. Utah's Mark Shurtleff and Georgia's Thurbert Baker both made public service T.V. ads encouraging parents to check the ESRB ratings before buying games for their kids. Even more shocking, by year's end, longtime game violence critics Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman would publicly back the rating system as well. To add even more icing to the cake, the 2006 Annual Video Game Report Card awarded the ESRB a B for ratings education. Vance's lost weekend in Minnesota doubtless helped in that regard.

The ESRB still has its political detractors, to be sure. Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican presidential candidate, has legislation pending which would require the ESRB to play games to every possible outcome before assigning a rating. Now you and I understand that's an impossible undertaking, but it's a good sound bite for Brownback and a public relations problem for the ESRB.

A very recent -- and long overdue -- decision by the ESRB to employ full-time content reviewers could be seen as a means to bring additional credibility to the process, thereby buttressing the organization against critics like the conservative Kansas senator. But beyond that it's another sign that the ESRB is willing to change and adapt to the political landscape. In the long run, that's a good move for the video game industry.


Dennis McCauley is the Political Editor for the Entertainment Consumers Association (www.theeca.com), tracks the political side of video games at GamePolitics.com and writes about games for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Opinions expressed in The Political Game are his own. Reach him at

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