As the finalwork of this Public Administration program, representing the cumulative knowledge of administrative, legal, and ethical frameworks applied within a contemporary organization, this capstone project will analyze the workings of the videogame industry’s non-profit, self-regulatory arm known as the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), as it looks to create an overhauled content rating system that specifically addresses the challenges introduced by the rise of virtual reality gaming titles.
Since the early years of the videogame industry, the ESRB has functioned as the sole body charged with overseeing the categorization and distribution of videogame content, advertisements, and ratings within a comprehensive system that seeks to better inform parents and legal guardians of the existence of violent or sensitive contentwithin certain titles. This paradigm has remained largely untouched for the past two decades, as the user experience between controller andconsole has remained constant. The prospect of virtual reality gaming, however, brings this experience to an increased level of immersion, as the user’s senses are entirely enveloped by the headset, with the classic input method via acontroller set to bephased out in favor of physical actions by the user that more closely mirror the actions within the game (Charara, 2016, Motion Tracking section).With such a higher degree of interactivity and physicality, representing a significant paradigm shift in the gaming experience, the ESRB must acknowledge the challenges that this technology presents, and enhance the public value it has long held as the sole organization promoting content awareness in gaming, based on strong ethical standards in the categorization of such subject matter.One of the ultimate determinations of worth within a non-profit organization is the degree by which a program or initiative can createor enhance public value. Moore(1995) states that “the world in which a public manager operates will change. Citizens’ aspirations will change, as well methods for accomplishing old tasks” (p. 55). Moore’s statements, while writtenfrom a more government agency-minded point of view, are equally relevant when considering change and innovation within non-profit organizations, as his emphasis on meeting the aspirations of citizens represents a microcosm of the greater importance of stakeholder analysis in devising new practices that satisfies change both internal and external.Bryson (2004), elaborates on the importance of identifying pertinent stakeholders as the formative step in strategic planning, such that “the involvement of key decision makers outside the organization is usually crucial to success […] when implementation will involve multiple parties and organizations” (p. 35).Stakeholders, as defined by individual or group-based involvement with any combination of an organization’s resources, programs, and outputs represent not only internal employees and management, but the external clients, funding sources, and volunteers that constitute the balance between organizational mission and action.
For the ESRB, as its external environment is altered by the technological evolution that has come to affect nearly every consumer-oriented electronics market, virtual reality represents a watershed moment. The ESRB’s organizational positioning is worth noting in that throughout its two-decade history, it has been the only entity within the videogame industry charged with content regulation. This absence of competition has come to benefit the organization as it holds exclusivity with developers and retailers alike in ensuring that pertinent content provided by the former, as it relates to a game’s eventual rating, matches the advertisements and packaging that the latter displays to the general public. The ratings process has evolved over time, adapting to changes in the market as game sales increasingly favor digital outlets and supplemental, post-release content known as downloadable content (DLC), which provides enhancements to a game in the weeks and months following its release, and can often require a re-evaluation of a game’s original content rating (“ESRB Ratings Process”, 2016). Currently, there exists three review processes that directly address the nuances between physical, digital, and DLC content. The addition of a new methodology to address the medium of virtual reality headsets is an extension of the ESRB’s organizational strategy that has already proven so adept at responding to changes in the videogame industry.
With virtual reality headsets poised to become a new standard of interactivity within the gaming market, a comprehensive strategy must be devised that not only takes into account new and existing stakeholders, but one that continues to uphold the organizational efficiency of the ESRB’s existing ratings systems, while providing pertinent performance indicators for the new technology that hearkens back to the mission of “empower[ing] consumers, especially parents, with guidance that allows them to make informed decisions about the age-appropriateness and suitability of video games and apps while holding the video game industry accountable for responsible marketing practices” (“About ESRB”, 2016).Such an undertaking will draw heavily from the program planning and evaluation dimension of public administration: a series of steps involving resources, activities, outputs, and outcomes that, in addition to paralleling the ten-step structure of Bryson’s Strategy Change Cycle, lays out a formulaic method for implementing this proposed initiative.
While the ESRB does benefit slightly from its existing ratings processes that can shed some light on how to approach the evaluation of virtual reality-based content, stakeholder analysis must consider the introduction of new, external resources such as physicians and other medical-oriented groups to better evaluate the physical ramifications of the heightened interactivity that virtual reality presents, and how such findings can synthesize with the evaluation of gaming content itself. Existing relationships with retailers must be given additional emphasis as well, so as to find the most effective means of displaying a brief, yet comprehensive summation of the additional medical cautions found on the packaging and advertisements that coincide with a game’s release to the wider public.
Internal forces must be considered within this paradigm as well, as the ESRB must assess its current resources both financial and human, with the aim of reallocating these assets in an efficient manner so as to preserve the integrity and performance of existing rating systems, while also investing the appropriate time and energy into putting the vision for virtual reality content rating into action. Ultimately, as it is the consumer whose approval or buy-in of videogames is the final step in ensuring not only the relevance of the ESRB, but indeed the videogame industry as a whole, performance indicators must be drawn from the actions of this new program that ensure that virtual reality content is rated in such a manner so as to achieve the standards of education and public awareness stated in the organizational motto, while providing the same level of quality, based in consumer (parental) satisfaction that the ESRB’s existing rating systems have long enjoyed.