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Entertainment Software Ratings Board; a Rating System for Video Games

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is a self-regulatory organization that assigns age and content ratings, enforces industry-adopted advertising guidelines, and ensures responsible online privacy principles for computer and video games and … see full wiki

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1 review about ESRB

A Rating System That Actually Works

  • Jan 13, 2010
  • by
When video games became popular again because of the original Nintendo back in 1985, we saw video games as a medium that would stick around forever.  Much like comic books, rock music etc., it was dismissed as being something that was merely children's entertainment.  In 1992 video games broke that mold with the release of a game called Mortal Kombat.  At the time Mortal Kombat was the most graphically violent video game out there.  It's laughable now when you compare it to games like Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto and Bayonetta.  In 1992, however, the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were the state of the art, and the arcade was still incredibly popular.  Mortal Kombat dropped down and it was bloody as hell.  The fatalities in particular were brutal.  Characters ripping spines out and watching as fists connected and showed blood flying.  At the time Mortal Kombat was revolutionary.  In more ways than one.  Thanks to concerned parents, Mortal Kombat became one of the most controversial video games of all time.  It wasn't just Mortal Kombat.  It was other games like Night Trap and Doom as well.  At some point The Government stepped in (with Joe Lieberman leading the pack... does ANYONE like that guy?) and said that if the Video Game industry didn't do something about it... they would. 

The video game industry did do something about it.  In 1994 the industry established the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.  The ESRB if you don't want to say that whole thing.  Thanks to the ESRB video games often get to include a lot of things.  There are certain places video games still don't go, but the fact is that the ESRB rating, for the most part, happens to work.  The model for the system was inspired by the MPAA (which probably isn't the best model).  So the ESRB was established to take a look at games in a similar fashion that the MPAA looks at movies... only they seem a bit more sane about it.  For the most part the ESRB ratings system is said to be one of the best rating systems out there.  

In 1994 it did get off to a rocky start, however.  Rating games was a tough gig.  In part because they just aren't what they are now.  As gaming evolves, so does the ESRB.  In 1994 you could find most games getting a basic KA rating.  That meant kids to adults.  Meaning the game was appropriate for those who were six and older.  If anything, for 1994 it worked.  The other ratings were around.  There was T for Teen (13+) and M for Mature (17+) and there's AO for Adults Only (18+).  There's also an EC Rating (Early Childhood, ages 3+, those are mostly given to those educational PC games that help your kids learn).  In 2005 another big change occured when the industry realized that there's not much between E and T.  Movies have G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17.  The gaming industry just didn't have something equivalent to PG so they eventually got E10+ (Everyone 10 and Up).  Any game undergoing a rating is often labeled RP (Rating Pending).  There's hardly an "Unrated" game.

The first major change came to the ESRB in 1998 when they changed the Rating KA, to simply E for Everyone (you don't have to explain what THAT one means).  It was simple and more concrete.  The rating of every game used to appear on the cover of games in white font.  It was later changed to being a black letter in a white box, and made larger so that parents could go to the store and see it just like that.  Looking on the back of any game case anyone can also see what the game might contain:

ESRB Content Descriptors:

  • Alcohol Reference - Reference to and/or images of alcoholic beverages
  • Animated Blood - Discolored and/or unrealistic depictions of blood
  • Blood - Depictions of blood
  • Blood and Gore - Depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts
  • Cartoon Violence - Violent actions involving cartoon-like situations and characters. May include violence where a character is unharmed after the action has been inflicted
  • Comic Mischief - Depictions or dialogue involving slapstick or suggestive humor
  • Crude Humor - Depictions or dialogue involving vulgar antics, including “bathroom” humor
  • Drug Reference - Reference to and/or images of illegal drugs
  • Fantasy Violence - Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or non-human characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life
  • Intense Violence - Graphic and realistic-looking depictions of physical conflict. May involve extreme and/or realistic blood, gore, weapons and depictions of human injury and death
  • Language - Mild to moderate use of profanity
  • Lyrics - Mild references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol or drug use in music
  • Mature Humor - Depictions or dialogue involving "adult" humor, including sexual references
  • Nudity - Graphic or prolonged depictions of nudity
  • Partial Nudity - Brief and/or mild depictions of nudity
  • Real Gambling - Player can gamble, including betting or wagering real cash or currency
  • Sexual Content - Non-explicit depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including partial nudity
  • Sexual Themes - References to sex or sexuality
  • Sexual Violence - Depictions of rape or other violent sexual acts
  • Simulated Gambling - Player can gamble without betting or wagering real cash or currency
  • Strong Language - Explicit and/or frequent use of profanity
  • Strong Lyrics - Explicit and/or frequent references to profanity, sex, violence, alcohol or drug use in music
  • Strong Sexual Content - Explicit and/or frequent depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including nudity
  • Suggestive Themes - Mild provocative references or materials
  • Tobacco Reference - Reference to and/or images of tobacco products
  • Use of Drugs - The consumption or use of illegal drugs
  • Use of Alcohol - The consumption of alcoholic beverages
  • Use of Tobacco - The consumption of tobacco products
  • Violence - Scenes involving aggressive conflict. May contain bloodless dismemberment
  • Violent References - References to violent acts

You can find these things on just about any game.  It's on the back of every case and it's all in big font that's almost right in your face.  It may sound strange, but being big and in your face is actually one of the things people like most about it.  When you look on the back of a DVD you might have to search for a bit to find the rating... that's not true of video games.  The rating is on the front and back, and the descriptors are on the back of each game case.  If you're ever unsure of what a game contains, you can also look them up on their website (www.esrb.org).  Any game that was rated by the ESRB can be found on the Website.  Thanks to how the ESRB has gotten itself out there (you can find flyers in Gamestores, posters and other things in certain Target and Wal-Mart Locations) just about everyone knows it and utilizes it.  The best part about the ESRB is that there's hardly any ambiguity.  If a video game has massive amounts of blood and violence it gets an "M" Rating.  No questions asked.  There are very few loopholes.  

In the movie industry, for example, the movie 300 avoided the NC-17 rating because the blood depicted in the film disappeared when it hit the ground.  No, really.  With the movie industry they typically tend to have loopholes because the MPAA eventually became a marketing tool rather than anything else... and was eventually used more to tell directors what they could and couldn't do rather than as something to warn parents about what was in a movie.  Video games are lucky enough that they don't necessarily have to be toned down just for the sake of grossing a lot of money.  An "M" Rating game has just as good a chance of selling as a "T" rated game.  Despite what most people think, "M" Rated games aren't actually the biggest sellers.  If you only pay attention to huge games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Grand Theft Auto or Halo then yes you might think "M" Rated games are all the rage.  But that's because those games just happen to sell an unusual amount of copies, but in most years the charts are usually laden with T and E rated games (people seem to forget that the stuff you find on the Wii is typically Rated E).  

Although as a result of this myth that video games are for kids, the ESRB gets a much bigger crack down than the other industries.  For example, most stores have a policy that they can't sell a minor an M-Rated game.  These stores ALSO have a policy that they're not supposed to sell R-Rated Movies to minors (or unrated films) but it's largely ignored.  It's a little strange and confusing.  The myth that video games are for children has been around for an incredibly long time and is so powerful a lot of people believe it.  In truth most gamers happen to be in their 20's and 30's.  It's quite embarassing that I have to flash my ID to buy Bayonetta but they didn't care to have me show my ID when going to see any R Rated movie I've ever seen.  Ever... even when I was thirteen.  How odd. 

The ESRB doesn't have a whole lot of big problems.  It's constantly changing and bettering itself, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have it's small little nitpicks.  One thing that parents have been begging for the Gaming Industry to do is put the descriptors on the front of the case instead of on the back because some stores such as Wal-Mart and Target keep the games in a glass case where parents aren't able to look on the back of the case to see just what the descriptors are.  Believe it or not, people pay a lot of attention to those descriptors when their kid ask for a game.  Yet when shopping at Target and the like it's hard to look on the back of the case.  

One of the things that I'm a bit critical of with the ESRB is something similar to what I'm critical of with the MPAA.  When there's sexuality expressed in video games the ESRB happens to be a lot harsher and there's controversy.  Most everyone knows about the Hot Coffee Mod in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas.  The "M" Rating was fine until that little thing was discovered.  What it could unlock was a sex scene in which you could simulate sex.  This called for alarm because the ESRB didn't actually know about it and they're usually very thorough.  Not only did it somehow make it past the ESRB, but it also made some call for GTA San Andreas to be given an AO rating (and for a moment that's exactly what they were going to do).  Instead it was recalled and the mod was taken out.  If anyone actually saw the scene it wasn't quite as graphic as the media made it sound.  People always go crazy when it comes to sex.  They go crazy when it comes to violence (at least in video games) but sex often times gets people calling for censorship.  That didn't happen with San Andreas, just a call for an AO Rating.  Which is what kind of upset me.  I'm hopeful that the ESRB doesn't devolve into that.  By "that' I mean, this idea that eventually the ratings become based on sexual content rather than violence.  With the MPAA, for example, you can be as violent as you want, but sex is the Forbidden Fruit, the place you just don't go (where Sin City can maintain an "R" Rating for it's extreme violence because it's in black and white and The Dreamers has to wear it's NC-17 rating for showing male genetalia).  The hidden scene in San Andreas wasn't nearly as graphic as it sounds.  In fact, most of their clothes are still on (oh, you can't research the ESRB WITHOUT coming across it)... in short, it was still on par with what is allowed in an "R" Rated film.  It's been taken out, but it's a little disturbing to know that the AO rating was pushed because of a sex scene that people exaggerated rather than one they actually saw.

Actually the AO Rating wouldn't really be so heinous if it weren't for the fact that most places would actually agree to carry them.  Like the NC-17 rating... the AO rating is a killer in the video game industry, if you want your game to get out there.  The ESRB isn't as harsh, though.  At least with the ESRB video games don't run into a whole lot of censorship.  Because the limits of an "M" Rating just aren't that well known (aside from, "No sex").  At least it's solid.  Although that seems to be one of the other concerns with the ESRB.  How violent does your game have to be to overstep the "M" Rating?  It's just not clear.  The only real reference I have is Manhunt 2, a game that came out on the Wii, PS2 and PSP.  The "AO" Rating was considered because of the violence, but also because it was on the Wii--a family friendly console.  So it wasn't even the violent content of the game that disturbed people so much as it was that you were using the Wii Remote to do it.  It's probably the most well known case where the developer had to tone things down to avoid the AO rating.  The only thing that's a little disturbing about that, however, is that the AO Rating was only suggested because it was a game on the Wii.  If it had been the PS3 or 360, the controversy may not have ever occured (Manhunt 2 was a pretty crappy game, anyway, though).  Yet the ESRB is finding ways to work out the kinks that plague their system.

The only other thing I don't particularly like is the ESRB, like the MPAA, slapping an age number on mature.  I don't mind the suggestion of 17+ and all, but it's this idea that being younger than seventeen seems to automatically make you mature enough to start blowing heads off... but you have to wait ONE more year to be mature to see sex... as if that ONE year is going to make a huge difference in just how they'll handle it.  But more than that it's mostly that what constitute maturity is mostly a matter of attitude.  Not exactly age. It seems quite agreeable that perhaps say a 9 year old shouldn't play Grand Theft Auto... but at age 15 or 16?  Those high school years?  The line of maturity becomes vague.  At least in what a fifteen or sixteen year old can handle.  At the very least, however, the ESRB makes sure they remain suggestions and doesn't exactly set things in stone.  In the end, the ESRB, like the MPAA, makes sure that the parent is still in charge.  The ESRB just happens to rate their games more appropriately than the MPAA does.  With the MPAA a lot of movies have to eventually have an "Unrated" version on DVD so that you can see everything.  If a video game gets a "Director's Cut" it's not because of the ESRB.  Most tiimes it's because developers had to meet a deadline and couldn't give you everything they wanted to give you (such as the case with Resident Evil: Director's Cut) or because they wanted to fix bugs (such as the case with the Japanese version of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time).  You hardly see a game get a makeover because the ESRB forced them into doing it.

That primarily comes from the fact that the ESRB rating of a game isn't exactly used as a marketing tool.  Every game, no matter the rating, has a chance of selling.  The artistic limits of a video game stretch pretty far, but the ESRB is usually on the ball with knowing what the game contains and rating it accordingly.  The only reason the dreaded AO rating is so bad is because retailers will often refuse to carry those games and there just aren't that many specialty stores that would want to carry it either.  The Video Game industry hasn't run into many AO rated games.  According to the ESRB Website, only 24 (including that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas mod) have ever attained it, and most of them are PC games.  For those thinking that "M" Rated games are taking over the world... you'll be happy to know that as of writing this review the ESRB has only rated 1400 games with an "M" Rating, while at least 11,000 games receive an "E" Rating and over 4000 receive a "T" Rating.  The ESRB has rated over 18,000 games, and their system actually seems to work. 

Their system actually seems to work.  That's what's nice about it.  Parents like it as a resource, but more than that they seem to really love that there's hardly any ambiguity.  It works better than the MPAA because it's more consistent.  And I don't think I have to tell you that those "Parental Advisory" labels on CDs are about as useful as a broken TV is for playing video games.  The ESRB may not be perfect, but that doesn't mean it's bad as a result.  The ESRB is a good system that, for the most part, works.  The ratings are more consistent and it actually serves as guidelines for parents.

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January 15, 2010
Maybe the key thing that makes the ESRB work instead of the MPAA ratings is that it's relatively transparent. There's a known process. Where the biggest problem with the MPAA isn't the ratings themselves, but the near-total lack of any information as to how the ratings are given or can be changed.
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