Entertainment Software Rating Board
|Industry||Organization and rating system|
|Predecessor(s)||3DO Rating System
Recreational Software Advisory Council
Videogame Rating Council
|Founded||1994 in Canada and United States|
|Headquarters||New York City, New York, U.S.|
|Key people||Patricia Vance
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 in Canada and the United States. The ESRB was established in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association (formerly Interactive Digital Software Association), in response to criticism of violent content found in video games such as Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, Lethal Enforcers, Doom, and other controversial video games portraying excessively violent or intense sexual situations. The board assigns ratings to games based on their content, using judgment similar to the motion picture rating systems used in many countries. In addition, content descriptors explain specific types of content present in games. The ratings are intended to aid consumers in determining a game's content and suitability. A game's rating is generally displayed on its box, in its media, in advertisements, and on the game's website. By July 2012, it had assigned more than 22,000 ratings to titles submitted by more than 350 publishers.
Although use of the ESRB ratings system is not enforced by American or Canadian law, it is still considered a de facto standard for classification; most retail stores enforce ESRB ratings and do not carry any games which are unrated, while major console manufacturers will not license games for their systems unless they carry ESRB ratings.
When asked in 1987 about the suitability of a film-like rating system for video games, the Software Publishers Association said "Adult computer software is nothing to worry about. It's not an issue that the government wants to spend any time with ... They just got done with a big witchhunt in the music recording industry, and they got absolutely nowhere". The association did recommend voluntary warnings for games like Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (1987). Games' progression into the 16-bit era brought dramatic increases in graphics and sound capabilities. Blood and gore, in particular, could be portrayed much more clearly than in 8-bit games. Whereas blood in an 8-bit game could look blocky and pixelated, in a 16-bit game, it can be an easily identified fluid graphic. The release of games such as Mortal Kombat, Doom, Night Trap, and Lethal Enforcers resulted in controversy due to violent and otherwise objectionable content. In the United States Senate, Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl, of Connecticut and Wisconsin, respectively, led hearings on video game violence and the corruption of society in the early 1990s. Their hearings charged the entertainment software industry with the creation of a working rating system within a year, threatening federal creation of a system if they failed to do so.
Around this time, the Videogame Rating Council (VRC) was formed by Sega, largely to rate its own games. In 1993, the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) was formed, and the 3DO Company formed their own rating system, the 3DO Rating System, for games released on the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer. In 1994, the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) was formed by the Software Publishers Association. On July 29, 1994 the proposal from the IDSA for a rating system, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was presented to, and approved by, Congress In September 1994, the ESRB was established, becoming the de facto rating system for American video games. Initially, many companies who produced computer games, such as LucasArts, Sierra On-Line, and 3D Realms continued to follow the RSAC system, but eventually, all companies agreed to follow the ESRB ratings.
The rating system initially consisted of five different ratings: Early Childhood, Kids to Adults, Teen, Mature, and Adults Only. Shortly thereafter, "Informational" and "Edutainment" descriptors were added. In 1996, the rating icons were altered, adding the "Content Rated by ESRB" text. On January 1, 1998, the Kids to Adults rating was renamed to Everyone. Later that year, the Entertainment Software Rating Board Interactive (ESRBi) was formed, which rated web sites and online games. Beginning in early 2001, several content descriptors were retired and replaced. Content descriptors with "Animated" or "Realistic" distinctions in them had those portions removed. The "Skills" descriptors used for the Early Childhood rating were removed as well. A short time later, the Gaming descriptor was changed to Gambling, which itself was split into Real and Simulated Gambling in the following years.
In mid-2003, the ESRBi was closed down. On June 26, 2003, content descriptors were made larger and more legible, and newer, more thorough descriptors for violence (Cartoon, Fantasy, Intense) were added as well as a descriptor for Mature Humor. Also, the Mature and Adults Only icons had 17+ and 18+ added to their title band in order to clearly signify the age appropriateness. On March 2, 2005, after conferring with academicians and child development experts, the Everyone 10+ rating was introduced. Raters were initially hired on a part-time basis, but as of April 2007, the ESRB employs raters full-time.
In response to the growth of smartphone use, in November 2011, CTIA, a group of major U.S. wireless providers, and ESRB announced the co-development of a voluntary ratings process for mobile application stores. The system uses ESRB's icons and content descriptors, along with three additional icons ("Shares Info," "Shares Location," and "Users Interact") to inform users of an app's behavior in regards to privacy. Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile US were among the first to implement the system for their own application storefronts. Apple's App Store and Google Play still use their own internal rating systems and do not use the ESRB/CTIA system.
To obtain a rating for a game, a publisher sends the ESRB a DVD containing footage of the most graphic and extreme content found in the game, including content related to the game's context, storyline, reward system and other elements that may affect its rating. The publisher also fills out a questionnaire describing the game's content and pays a fee (which is significantly lower for games with development costs under $1 million).
For each game, the ESRB employs at least three trained raters who collectively watch the footage sent in by publishers and recommend a rating. ESRB personnel review the footage and all materials to ensure accuracy of the rating, and a certificate is sent to the publisher. A publisher may subsequently edit the game and resubmit the footage and questionnaire in order to achieve a lower rating, or appeal the rating to a committee made up of entertainment software industry representatives. If a publisher chooses to do so, the process begins anew.
When the game is ready for release, the publisher sends copies of the final version of the game to the ESRB. The ESRB reviews the game's packaging, and a random number of games they receive are play tested for more thorough review. Penalties apply to publishers who misrepresent the content of their games, including the potential for fines up to $1 million and a product recall, if deemed necessary.
The identities of the ESRB raters are kept confidential, although they are all full-time ESRB employees who live in the New York City area. According to the ESRB website, "All ESRB raters are adults who typically have experience with children, whether through prior work experience, education or as parents or caregivers."  Raters are supposed to review games as if they were a customer receiving their first glance at the game.
In April 2011, the ESRB introduced a streamlined, automated process for assigning ratings for console downloadable games as a way to address the rapidly growing volume of digitally-delivered games. Rather than having raters review each product, publishers of these games complete a series of multiple-choice questions that address content across relevant categories, including violence, sexual content, language, etc. The responses automatically determine the game's rating category and content descriptors. Games rated via this process may be tested post-release to ensure that content was properly disclosed. The survey-based method is also used in the ESRB/CTIA rating program for mobile apps.
The symbols ESRB uses are stylized alphabetical letters meant to indicate the game's suitability. The appearance of the ratings icons have been updated several times; originally carrying a stylized, pixelated look, they were first updated in 1999 to carry a cleaner appearance. In 2013, the rating icons were streamlined, with the textual name of the rating becoming black text on white, the "content rated by" tagline removed entirely, and trademark symbols moved to the bottom-right corner. The changes were intended to increase their clarity at smaller sizes (such as on mobile devices), reflecting the growth in the digital distribution of video games.
|Abbreviation||Rating||Active since||Description||Suitable For|
|Early Childhood (EC)||1994||Games with this rating contain content which the board believes is suitable for young children ages 3 and up. Games that fall under this rating are usually educational, and contain no inappropriate or objectionable content such as language, sexuality, violence, or drugs.||3 and up|
|Everyone (E)||1998||Games with this rating contain content which the board believes is suitable for those aged 6 years and up; they can contain mild, infrequent use of violence (particularly cartoon or fantasy violence) or profanity.||6 and up|
|Everyone 10+ (E10+)||Late 2004||Games with this rating contain content which the board believes is suitable for those aged 10 years of age and up; they can contain mild use of violence, language, or suggestive themes at a higher level than what the E rating can accommodate, but lower than T.||10 and up|
|Teen (T)||1994||Games with this rating contain content which the board believes is suitable for those aged 13 years of age and up; they can contain moderate use of violence (including blood), mild to moderate language, and suggestive themes. This video game contains some adult material and parents are urged to learn more about this game before they can allow their child/children to play it.||13 and up|
|Abbreviation||Rating||Active since||Description||Suitable For|
|Mature (M)||1994||Games with this rating contain content which the board believes is suitable for those aged 17 or up.||17 and up|
|Adults Only (AO)||1994||
Games with this rating contain content which the board believes is unsuitable for people under 18 years of age; the rating typically covers adult video games that can contain strong sexual themes/content, graphic nudity, use of drugs/alcohol/tobacco, strong language, strong mature humor, real gambling, and/or stronger violence than the M rating can accommodate. Games from major publishers that receive an AO rating are often edited in order to meet the Mature rating, as all three major console manufacturers (Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony Computer Entertainment) forbid AO-rated games from being published on their platforms, and most retailers refuse to stock AO-rated games.
|18 and up|
|Rating Pending (RP)||1994||This symbol is exclusively used in advertising and marketing materials. It indicates a product that has not yet been assigned a final rating. However, once a game is rated, all advertising for a game must contain its official ESRB rating. Depending on their content, some games supplement their RP rating with the disclaimer, "May contain content inappropriate for children".|
|Kids to Adults (K-A)||1994–1998||This category indicated titles with appeal to people of many ages and tastes. Titles in this category may contain minimal violence, some comic mischief (i.e. slapstick and gross-out comedy), or some crude language. This rating was replaced in 1998 by the E rating; subsequently, all games with a K-A rating are considered to be E-rated with few exceptions. The E rating does maintain "Enfants et adultes" (literally "Kids and adults") as its French name.||All Ages.|
- 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
NOTE: When a Content Descriptor is preceded by the term "Mild" it is intended to convey low frequency, intensity or severity.
The ESRB ratings are enforced on a self-regulatory basis by the video game and retail industries; the majority of American retailers refuse the sale of Mature-rated games to those under 17 years of age, and refuse to stock video games that have not been rated by the organization. The ESRB's ratings are not legally binding under U.S. law, but there have been several attempts to pass bills that would make it a legal requirement for retailers to enforce ESRB ratings, and make it illegal to sell unrated games at retail. However, the Supreme Court case Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association ruled that states could not pass laws to restrict the sale of video games to minors, as they are considered a protected form of expression under the First Amendment.
In addition to assigning ratings, the ESRB also enforces guidelines that have been adopted by the video game industry in order to ensure responsible advertising and marketing practices. These include ensuring that game packaging, advertisements, and trailers properly display rating information, and restricting where advertising materials for games rated T or higher can appear. This allows the ESRB to restrict video game advertising "to consumers for whom the product is not rated as appropriate." The industry's enforcement of advertising and marketing guidelines led the Federal Trade Commission to recognize ESRB as having "the strongest self-regulatory code" of all entertainment sectors in its 2009 Report to Congress.
Violence and the AO rating
The ESRB has often been accused of not rating games harshly enough for violence and other related themes. Games such as Harvester, Manhunt, Rise of the Triad, Mortal Kombat, and Soldier of Fortune, which have shown gruesome violence, received an M rating. Many critics have claimed that these games deserve the AO rating and were given the M for commercial reasons. The ESRB states that it rates games AO when warranted - even due to violence. It also states that consoles do not license AO-rated games and only sell Rated M games, and that retailers generally choose not to sell AO-rated games, and that both of those factors cause publishers of AO-rated games to revise and resubmit them in order to obtain the more marketable Mature rating. Rise of the Triad in particular, received the highest violence descriptor: "Wanton and gratuitous violence" from the Recreational Software Advisory Council, which was mitigated by its M rating by the ESRB. In the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, their respective provincial governments classified Soldier of Fortune and Manhunt as films, and gave them "Restricted" ratings, limiting their sale to adults.
The ESRB has only given out the AO rating for violence alone twice: first for Thrill Kill (which was canceled after the developer was bought by Electronic Arts), and then for Manhunt 2. The Punisher was never officially given the AO rating, as it toned down its violent content (by placing the offending scenes in black and white) to receive an M rating. Manhunt 2 was edited before release in order to qualify for an M, though an uncut PC version has since been released with an AO rating. Of particular concern to the ESRB was a scene depicting castration, which was removed entirely from the M-rated console versions of the game. Thrill Kill received an AO rating with content descriptors for Animated Violence and Animated Blood and Gore, but was never released after the original publisher, Virgin Entertainment, was purchased by Electronic Arts.
GameSpy has suggested that Grand Theft Auto III (their 2001 Game of the Year) received such treatment from the ESRB, saying "Counter-Strike is merely Cowboys and Indians[disambiguation needed] writ large. When you get right down to it, deathmatches are just elaborate games of Tag. GTA 3 is a Thug Simulator... [GTA 3 is] absolutely reprehensible. This is a game that rewards you for causing mayhem. This is a game that is about causing mayhem. It's a game that rewards you for killing innocent people by the dozen."
Twenty-three products have been given the AO rating without revision for a different rating. Peak Entertainment Casinos was rated AO for unsimulated online gambling. Two were given for violence, as aforementioned. The remaining 20 AO games were given rated thus for sexual content or nudity.
In 2005, members of the mod community discovered that the PC version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas could be modified to unlock an incomplete sex minigame known as "Hot Coffee", which Rockstar North had decided to leave out of the final game. The discovery of the minigame caused California State Assemblyman Leland Yee to rebuke both Rockstar and the ESRB, arguing that the ESRB was not doing its job properly. US Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Lieberman also expressed their disapproval. Rockstar initially claimed that the minigame was created by the mod community and was not a part of the original game. This was disproven when it was discovered that a third-party cheat device could be used to unlock the "Hot Coffee" scenes in console versions of the game. Following an investigation the ESRB changed its rating from M to AO, setting a precedent that games can be re-rated due to the presence of pertinent content that exists on the game's disc, even if that content is programmed to not be playable without modification or unauthorized use of a third-party cheat device. Although this made Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas the best selling game to receive an AO rating, Rockstar soon released a patch that disabled the modification on PC versions and re-released the game as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Second Edition. The new release disabled all access to the "Hot Coffee" mini-game and was given the game's original M rating by the ESRB as a result.
In 2006, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion had its rating changed from T to M due to "more detailed depictions of blood and gore than were considered in the original rating, as well as a mod that, if accessed through a third-party modification to the PC version of the game, allows the user to play with topless versions of female characters." The game's publisher decided not to re-release the game to remove the hidden texture, stating that it believed the original rating was the most accurate assessment of what parents should expect from the game.
Rockstar Games' Manhunt 2 was postponed for three months in the United States and several other countries due to its initial AO rating from the ESRB. Numerous edits brought the rating down to M. Less than a week after the release, it was discovered that the PS2 and PSP versions of the game could be modified to erase the patches that censored the violent content. Rockstar Games has since claimed that even with these modifications, many of the scenes were toned down from the original version submitted to the ESRB for rating. As a result, the ESRB chose not to change the game's rating from M. Ultimately, an AO-rated PC version was released by Rockstar as a download exclusive. Similarly, The Punisher was hacked into to allow uncensored kills, and the PC version had patches to remove the filters and intensify the violence.
The ESRB typically posts rating information for new titles on its website 30 days after the rating process is complete. This can cause a game's existence to become public information before its official announcement. As a result, the ESRB implemented a process by which publishers with concerns about this practice can request that information about the game not be posted to the ESRB's website until a specific date.
- What is the ESRB? from the ESRB FAQ
- Rybka, Jason (2005). "ESRB Video Game Ratings and Video Game Content Descriptors". About.com. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
- ESRB rating search
- Williams, John (January 1988). "Goodbye "G" Ratings: The Perils of "Larry"". Computer Gaming World. pp. 48–49
- An Alternative to Government Regulation and Censorship: Content Advisory Systems for the Internet Published Papers
- Kohler, Chris (29 July 2009). "July 29, 1994: Videogame Makers Propose Ratings Board to Congress". Condé Nast Publications (Wired). Retrieved 1 June 2011.
- About ESRB
- "The ESRB: What are you playing?". 6 January 2010. Retrieved 10 January 2010.
- A majority of the information in this section was obtained from the archived ESRB website, available at Internet Archive.
- "ESRB hiring full-time raters" - GameSpot News, 2007-2-21.
- CTIA and ESRB Debuts App Rating System - TechCrunch, Nov. 29, 2011
- ESRB, CTIA Detail Voluntary Mobile App Rating System - Gamasutra, Nov. 29, 2011
- Video Games Rating Board Questionnaire - New York Times, April 18, 2011
- CTIA Mobile Application Rating System with ESRB - accessed at ESRB.org on August 30, 2012
- Verizon Now Using CTIA Mobile Application Rating System - Tom's Guide, August 15, 2012
- Parent's Guide to Games series, by Craig Wessel
- Rating Process from ESRB
- "ESRB tweaks rating icons for digital and mobile future". Polygon. Retrieved 2 August 2013.
- "Video Games: Reading the Ratings on the Games People Play". Ftc.gov. 2009-04-24. Retrieved 2012-06-14.
- "Vivid: Sony said no to PS3 porn streaming". CNET. Retrieved 10 December 2013.
- Sinclair, Brendan (20 June 2007). "Sony, Nintendo refuse to allow AO rated games on their consoles". GameSpot. Retrieved 12 January 2011.
- Rating categories, content descriptors, and interactive elements from ESRB
- "House bill wants $5,000 fine for video games without ESRB rating". Ars Technica. Retrieved 16 December 2013.
- "States May Not Ban Sale, Rental of Violent Videogames to Minors". Wired. Retrieved 16 December 2013.
- "FTC report: retailers clamping down on M-rated game sales". Ars Technica. Retrieved 22 November 2013.
- "ID, please: Bill would mandate carding for M-rated game buys". Ars Technica. Retrieved 22 November 2013.
- "Bill targets teen gamers". Variety. Retrieved 22 November 2013.
- ESRB Enforcement System, ESRB.org
- Entertainment Software Rating Board Principles and Guidelines for Responsible Advertising Practices
- FTC Praises US Game Regulation Code - Edge Online - December 4, 2009
- "M-rated video: the ESRB and video game trailers". Ars Technica. Retrieved 16 December 2013.
- Snuff games and ratings - CNN/Money.com, November 26, 2003.
- The Ratings Game: The Controversy Over The ESRB - Game Informer magazine, August 2006.
- ESRB President Patricia Vance's Plan for a World Ratings Solution - Gamasutra, April 10, 2012.
- "Ontario slaps 'R' rating on video game". CBC News. 5 March 2004.
- "Manhunt 2 receives AO rating" - GameSpot News, 2007-06-19.
- "Video game rating board don't get no respect" - Paul Hyman, The Hollywood Reporter, April 8, 2005.
- "EA kills 'Thrill Kill' game before release". ZDNet. 15 October 1998. Archived from the original on 16 November 2006. Retrieved 18 December 2006.
- "GameSpy.com - Game of the Year Awards - 2001". Archive.gamespy.com. Retrieved 2012-06-14.
- "Hidden sex scenes hit GTA rating". BBC News. 21 July 2005. Retrieved 18 December 2006.
- '"Boobies Did Not Break the Game": The ESRB Clears the Air On Oblivion' from The Escapist
- "ESRB Changes Rating For The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion From Teen to Mature". ESRB. 3 May 2006. Retrieved 18 December 2006.
- Sinclair, Brendan (3 May 2006). "Oblivion rerated M for Mature". GameSpot News. Retrieved 18 December 2006.
- "Bethesda responds to Oblivion rerating". GameSpot News. 3 May 2006. Retrieved 18 December 2006.
- Graft, Kris (19 June 2008). "ESRB Reins In Premature Game Leaks". Next Generation News. Retrieved 19 June 2008.