Pathfinding: Helping Xbox Game Studios create safe and inclusive games

Monisha Monikantarajan, Age Ratings & Safety Program Manager, describes how she partners with studios to create a better experience for players.

December 06, 2022
A photograph of Monisha Monikantarajan

Making sure games are compliant and appeal to a global audience is a difficult, but critical task that requires planning and careful tracking throughout game development. This month we’ll meet a couple people from Xbox Game Studios that assist teams in preparing for global launches. Today we are talking with Monisha Monikantarajan, the Age Ratings and Safety Program Manager on the Xbox Studios Services team. Tune in later this month to meet one of her teammates and learn more about Global Readiness.

Can you tell me some of your career history – how did you get into gaming and what let to your current role?

I received my bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Anna University in Chennai, India. I was not an avid gamer, but I played games sometimes, and even developed a few simple games as part of my coursework. I remember making a simple snake game, where you keep collecting pieces and growing longer and try to avoid doubling back on yourself. The logic and design of those types of games, even though they aren’t as sophisticated and don’t require as much technical development, it still gave me a sense of what goes into making a game and that fascinated me.

My first job after undergrad was as a systems engineer at Infosys. I was hoping to do my master’s degree in the U.S. and shortly after I got married and my husband got a job at Microsoft in Seattle, WA. With my scope narrowed to Washington state, I decided to get my MBA from the University of Washington. After that I started out in Xbox Technology and Services team as a vendor, and after a few years transitioned to a full time Program Manager (PM) role on that team. Then last summer I became the first member of the Player Inclusion and Trust team, which we affectionately call the PIT crew.

What can you tell our readers about your current job?

I am the Age Ratings and Safety PM for Xbox Game Studios (XGS), within the Xbox Studios Services team. My role used to be combined within the Global Readiness PM (we’ll learn more about that in our next installment) but with the addition of so many new studios to XGS it made sense to split the responsibilities between two people. Age ratings are a key component of Global Readiness, so I still work closely with the Global Readiness PM.

On the age ratings side my primary focus is on ESRB ratings, which covers about 30 countries across North and South America. We have developed best practices and guidelines for how to meet ESRB requirements and minimize our violations and infractions. My job is to evangelize these resources to all of the Xbox Game Studios and help them align their studios to our best practices, so they are ready with ESRB ratings when the game launches.

On the safety side I primarily engage with studios to help titles meet safety compliance. This means ensuring that we provide a safe and inclusive game experience for our players.

Can you explain a bit more about what the safety part means? Is that related to online safety?

There is an overlap with age ratings and safety, so let me clarify. When we talk about age ratings, it’s about what content we as developers are creating. We can look at it and see is there is violence or alcohol in the game, ok then that game is for a mature audience. Age ratings are based on game content, and the ESRB is a self-regulatory organization that assigns ratings to the games based on the descriptions and information we give them.

Safety is about what happens in the game, once the players are there. Things like what kind of player-to-player communication is happening and whether there is bullying or terrorist activity happening in those communications. Those types of communication will make players feel unsafe, so we need to moderate the content. We also look at user generated content to ensure it meets our Xbox Community Standards.

How do you monitor in-game communication? That seems like a big task.

Yes, it is. We have ways for players to report inappropriate or abusive content or communication, and we have a team that constantly looks at what’s being reported and works to improve the algorithms that flag bad actors. Right now, we’re a little more reactive, using community moderators to respond to comments, but the goal is to be more proactive. We aim to improve our AI algorithms, and with the recent acquisition of Two Hat we’re adopting additional solutions such as Community Sift to help us with content moderation. We also partner with a central Xbox safety team for additional support and guidance.

I’ve noticed if I go to the Xbox store and I’m not signed in, certain content and game information is blocked with a lock symbol – is your work related to that?

Yes, that’s age gating and the work I do with age ratings and safety is used to inform the age gating controls within our system so that consumers, or their children, only see the type of content they want to see and can avoid content that might be too graphic or mature for them.

When do you start working with studios on age ratings and safety?

We try to start as early as we can, from the game’s inception. Right now, I’m engaged with some studios where their games won’t launch for 2-3 years, but I’ve identified safety champs on the teams and I’m working with them to think about safety and global readiness while they’re designing the game.

What types of design decisions do you focus on to set up game up for success?

From a safety perspective, User Generated Content (UGC) is a big one. As soon as a team starts talking about having UGC in their game I kick off a more comprehensive safety consultation. This is another situation where I partner with that central Xbox safety team. They have experts that can do a deeper dive into a specific area of safety and can offer the latest advice for how to handle UGC. We partner with them to make sure that we’re applying policies and best practices consistently across things like language filtering and how parental controls work.

What is your favorite game – overall or currently?

I enjoy playing casual games and the simulation genre. My current favorite is Flight Simulator and I’m trying to set up my Xbox with the Honeycomb Flight Sim Hardware for an enhanced experience.