A Letter From Our CEO – 30 Years of ESA

  • 06.06.2024
  • Industry Updates

As President and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association, it is my privilege to lead the organization that serves as the voice and advocate for the U.S video game industry.

When you look at various forms of entertainment that have captured the attention of the world across history, video games are a relatively new medium. The first arcade computer game, Computer Space, was introduced in 1971. The Atari and Pong craze swept the nation just a few years later, in 1977. Still, video games — despite being developed as an art form more recently than music, theater, movies, television, radio and books — have made an extraordinarily impressive cultural and economic impact that is truly worth celebrating.

This year marks the ESA’s 30th anniversary. Founded in 1994 as the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), our founding member companies looked to build an organization that, as a collective, would represent an industry that was exploding in popularity and social impact. As policymakers looked to regulate emerging technologies and new forms of entertainment, it was essential that the industry come together to advocate for commonsense legislation and regulation that would encourage creativity and innovation and also support the industry’s economic potential. These tenets remain the ESA’s core focus.

As milestones create natural moments of reflection, this year we celebrate some of the defining moments that have helped establish the U.S. video game industry as one of the leading forms of entertainment that continues to shape the country’s cultural lexicon.

Establishing the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB)

Shortly after forming the IDSA, the ESA’s member companies founded the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in 1994 to assign age ratings and to convey content descriptions to video games to help consumers – and, especially, parents and caregivers – make informed decisions about which games are appropriate for their families.

Over the past 30 years, the ratings system has expanded from a two-part to a three-part system, comprised of Rating Categories, Content Descriptors, and Interactive Elements. ESRB’s scope also grew to include: the Advertising Review Council, which monitors compliance with industry-adopted marketing and advertising guidelines; the ESRB Privacy Certified program, which serves as one of the six “safe harbor” privacy programs approved by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to administer the protections of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (also known as COPPA); and the ESRB Retail Council, a group composed of game retailers that voluntarily commit to informing customers about ESRB ratings and enforcing store policies not to sell Mature-rated games to children under the age of 17 without a parent’s permission or presence. In addition, in 2013, ESRB became one of the founding rating authorities of the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC), a groundbreaking, globally streamlined cloud-based service that assigns ratings for digital games and mobile apps. The ESRB has been lauded by the FTC for having “the strongest self-regulatory code” of all U.S. entertainment media rating systems and “high compliance” with that code.

Launching the Essential Facts Report

In 1999 – back when playing on a mobile device meant on a Game Boy and not a smartphone – IDSA issued its first-ever State of the Industry Report, detailing who plays and how we play video games. Rebranded to Essential Facts About the U.S. Video Game Industry in 2002, the ESA has now issued an annual report for 26 years, taking America’s pulse on the perceptions and attitudes towards video games. Curious to see where the industry was in 1999? Check out our archive of Essential Facts reports here.

Hosting the Biggest E3 Ever

E3 – the video game industry’s much-loved annual trade show – was founded in 1995 to create an event exclusively to showcase the growing economic and cultural impact of interactive entertainment. The 2005 trade show boasted more than 70,000 attendees, making it the most widely attended E3 in its 24-year history. Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony all unveiled major next-generation consoles (the Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3, respectively), and PC games like Battlefield 2, Spore, F.E.A.R. and Civilization IV built excitement for the next wave of innovation in video game design and storytelling.

Establishing First Amendment Rights Under the U.S. Constitution

From its inception, the video game industry has stood as an ardent supporter of free expression and the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Still, critics assailed those rights as applied to video game publishers, developers, artists, storytellers and players – just as they had previously with respect to music, films and books. Following false accusations that playing video games might lead to real world violence, the ESA led the legal effort to protect free expression in games, resulting in a landmark decision in 2011 before the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision, known as Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association and Entertainment Software Association, struck down a 2005 California law banning the sale of so-called “violent” video games to children without parental consent, confirming that video games are to be afforded the same First Amendment protections enjoyed by any other types of artistic expression.

Launching a Congressional Caucus in Support of the Video Game Sector

In 2011, Reps. Kevin Brady (R-TX) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) launched the first-ever Congressional Caucus for Entertainment Technology Competitiveness (E-Tech Caucus) to demonstrate their support for the interactive entertainment sector on Capitol Hill as well as their interest in the policy issues that affected it. Later rebranded as the Congressional Video Game and Esports Caucus, the group is now co-chaired by Reps. Jay Obernolte (R-CA) and Marc Veasey (D-TX) and has supported efforts to increase awareness regarding the cultural, social and economic impact of the U.S. video game industry.

Convening the Global Industry for Information Sharing and Solidarity on Public Policy Advocacy

In 2016, the ESA worked in collaboration with several leading video game trade associations from around the world to launch an annual summit focused on identifying and addressing the industry’s public policy challenges and opportunities. The initial cohorts – including the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC), Interactive Games & Entertainment Association (IGEA) and the trade associations that comprise the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE, later rebranded as Video Games Europe) – were joined by their respective member companies to reflect on the industry’s experiences with policymakers in various jurisdictions. The summit would go on to add other regional groups, including the Korea Association of Game Industry (K-GAMES) and the European Games Developer Federation (EGDF), to widen the scope of perspectives shaping the public policy landscape for the industry.

Providing Outlets and Connections During the Global Pandemic

In March 2020, governments and public health officials around the world mandated social distancing and separation to limit the spread of a global pandemic. During this time of isolation, video games provided an important outlet for those seeking not only entertainment, but connections with others. For regular gamers, they found solace in the communities they had formed. For those new to video games – as well as for lapsed gamers – turning to games served as an immediate introduction to the advancements in game play, technology, storytelling as well as well as the ease with which one could connect with family, friends and loved ones.

New Joining Forces to Create the Global Video Game Coalition (GVGC)

In 2022, seven national trade associations representing their countries’ video game sectors – ESA, the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC), the German Games Industry Association (game), Interactive Games & Entertainment Association (IGEA), the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE, later rebranded as Video Games Europe), Korea Association of Game Industry (K-GAMES) and The Association for UK Interactive Entertainment (Ukie) – came together to create the Global Video Game Coalition (GVGC). GVGC was founded with the goal of raising global awareness of the positive impact of video game play on players of all ages and to demonstrate the industry’s long-standing commitment to enabling players, parents and guardians to engage in responsible game play.

Collaborating to Highlight the Global Impact of Video Games

For the first time ever, national trade associations serving the video game industry around the world issued a joint survey to look at the behaviors and interests of nearly 13,000 players (ages 16 and older) across 12 countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. The resulting Power of Play report found that around the world, playing video games is about far more than entertainment, and players who may be separated by oceans, cultures and time zones, all share the recognition that video games are beneficial for our social and emotional wellbeing.

Celebrating 30 Years of Advancing the Power of Play

The industry’s success over the past three decades is not without thanks to the numerous developers, artists, engineers, musicians, professional staff and more who have dedicated their careers to creating and making video games. To that end, as part of our 30th anniversary celebrations, ESA honored Representatives Jay Obernolte (R-CA) and Marc Veasey (D-TX) with the Interactive Entertainment Impact Award for their contributions to and support of the video game industry as Co-Chairs of the Congressional Video Game and Esports Caucus. We also recognized the AARP for their work in advancing research and engagement with video games among the 50+ community, who now represent a third of all players in the United States.

We are proud to serve as the voice of this vibrant industry and its workforce. Looking back on the past 30 years, it’s amazing all that our industry has accomplished in transforming the way we play. Looking ahead, we’re equally as excited to continue to realize the extraordinary potential of video games to transform our lives.

Stanley Pierre-Louis

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