Entertainment Software Rating Board
2006 – present logo
|Industry||Organization and rating system|
|Predecessor(s)||3DO Rating System
Recreational Software Advisory Council
Videogame Rating Council
|Headquarters||New York City, New York, U.S.|
|Area served||United States, Canada, Mexico|
|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 the United States and Canada. The ESRB was established in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association (formerly the Interactive Digital Software Association), in response to criticism of violent content found in video games such as Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, 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, using a combination of six age-based levels intended to aid consumers in determining a game's content and suitability, along with a system of "content descriptors" which detail specific types of content present in a particular game. The ESRB also maintains an code of ethics for the advertising and promotion of video games, ensuring that marketing materials for games display their ESRB ratings information, and are targeted to appropriate audiences. The ESRB also operates an online privacy certification program, and in 2011, began a program for rating mobile apps in partnership with CTIA.
Although use of the ESRB ratings system is not enforced by federal law in either the United States and Canada, it is effectively a de facto standard because of how it is treated by the industry: major console manufacturers will not license games for their systems unless they carry ESRB ratings, most retail stores enforce ESRB ratings, and also do not carry any games which are not rated by the organization. Due to the level of consumer and retail awareness of the ratings system, along with the organization's efforts to ensure that retailers comply with the ratings system and that publishers comply with its marketing code, the ESRB has considered its system to be effective, and was praised by Federal Trade Commission for being the "strongest" self-regulatory organization in the entertainment sector. Despite this, the ESRB has still faced criticism for not rating certain games harshly enough for their violent content, and was also criticized for its handling of objectionable content that could only be accessed through modding.
Games with objectionable content date back as far as 1979; the arcade game Death Race (based off the film) required users to run over "gremlins" with a vehicle and avoid the gravestones they leave behind. Although its graphics were relatively primitive, the game's overall theme and the sound effects made when gremlins were killed were considered disturbing by players, prompting media attention. A developer known as Mystique became known for making sexually explicit adult video games for the Atari 2600 console, but garnered the most attention with its controversial 1982 game Custer's Revenge, which infamously featured a crude simulation of the rape of a Native American woman. Atari received numerous complaints about the game, and responded by trying to sue the game's makers. A 1983 industry crash caused by the market being overrun with low-quality products prompted a higher degree of regulation by future console manufacturers; when Nintendo launched its NES console, it instituted requirements and restrictions on third-party developers, most noticeably requiring all games to be licensed by the company and include a lockout chip to prevent the console from loading unlicensed games. Such leverage on developers would later become a standard practice among console makers, although Nintendo's U.S. division had stringent content policies as well, frequently censoring blood, sexual content, religious symbols, and references to tobacco and alcohol from games released on its consoles in the United States.
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).
Video games' progression into the 1990s brought dramatic increases in graphics and sound capabilities, and the ability to use full-motion video (FMV) content in games. 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 which began in 1992. Two games of this era were specifically cited in the hearings for their content; the fighting game Mortal Kombat featured realistic, digitized sprites of live-action actors, blood, and the ability to use violent "fatality" moves to finish opponents, while Night Trap featured 90 minutes of FMV content, with scenes that were considered to be sexually suggestive and exploitive. Both Nintendo and Sega had differing views on objectionable content in video games; a port of Mortal Kombat for Nintendo's SNES was censored to remove the game's overly violent content, while a version for Sega consoles was released relatively uncut, which helped increase sales.
Sega had implemented its own voluntary ratings system, the Videogame Rating Council (VRC), largely to rate games released for its own consoles. Mortal Kombat and Night Trap were rated "MA-13" and "MA-17" on Sega's scale respectively. During the hearings, Howard Lincoln and Bill White (chairmen of Nintendo and Sega's U.S. divisions respectively) attacked each other's stances on objectionable content in video games; Lincoln condemned Sega for even releasing Night Trap and felt it "simply has no place in our society", while White argued that Sega was more responsible to consumers because they had a rating system in place, rather than a presumption that all its games would be safe for general audiences. Fragmentation would also develop in the classification of games; The 3DO Company formed their own age-based rating system, the 3DO Rating System, for games released on its 3DO Interactive Multiplayer, and the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) was formed for rating PC games, and used a system consisting of ratings in certain classes of objectionable content, but not ages. However, Lieberman did not believe that these systems were sufficient, and in February 1994, threatened to propose the creation of a federal commission for regulating and rating video games.
With the threat of federal regulations, a group of major video game developers and publishers—including Acclaim Entertainment, Electronic Arts, along with Nintendo and Sega, formed a political trade group known as the Interactive Digital Software Association in April 1994, with a goal to create a self-regulatory framework for assessing and rating video games. While Sega had proposed using its VRC rating system, Nintendo representatives objected to the idea because it did not want to associate itself with the work of its main competitor. Instead, a vendor-neutral rating system known as the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was developed. The formation of the ESRB was officially announced to Congress on July 29, 1994. The ESRB was officially launched on September 1, 1994; its system consisted of five age-based ratings; "Early Childhood", "Kids to Adults" (later renamed "Everyone" in 1998), "Teen", "Mature", and "Adults Only". The ESRB would also use "descriptors" with brief explanations of the content contained in a game.
Expansion and recent developments
Alongside its efforts to classify video games, the ESRB also formed a division known as Entertainment Software Rating Board Interactive (ESRBi), which rated internet content using a similar system to its video game ratings. ESRBi also notably partnered with the internet service provider America Online to integrate these ratings into its existing parental controls. ESRBi was discontinued in 2003.
In 2002, Dr. Arthur Pober, the original president of the ESRB, stepped down so he could focus on academics. In November 2002, he was formally replaced by Patrica Vance, who formerly worked for The Princeton Review and The Walt Disney Company. In March 2005, the ESRB introduced a new rating, "Everyone 10+". Slotted in between the existing "Everyone" and "Teen" ratings, the new rating designates games that have content that are suitable for general audiences, but may not be suitable for younger children.
In response to the growth of smartphone use, in November 2011, CTIA, a group of major U.S. companies representing the wireless industry, and ESRB announced the co-development of a free, 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, and Microsoft's Windows Phone Marketplace already supported ESRB ratings upon its introduction. Apple's App Store and Google Play still use their own internal rating systems and do not use the ESRB/CTIA system. President Patricia Vance explained that the partnership was intended to help broaden the ESRB's reach into the mobile market, and that "consumers, especially parents, benefit from having a consistently applied set of ratings for games rather than a fragmented array of different systems."
In addition to its video game ratings operation, the ESRB also offers an online privacy program which helps websites adopt privacy policies and data usage practices which comply with relevant laws and best practices for the collection and use of personal information, and provides "Privacy Certified" seals indicating certification under the ESRB's privacy guidelines. In June 2013, the service was extended to mobile apps, with a particular emphasis on helping application developers comply with the then-upcoming changes to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.
To obtain a rating for a game, a publisher submits a detailed questionnaire and a DVD containing footage of the most graphic and extreme content found in the game to the ESRB, including content related to the game's context, storyline, reward system, unlockable and otherwise "hidden" content, and other elements that may affect its rating. They may also provide printed copies of the game's script and lyrics from songs in the game. The footage is reviewed by a team of at least three raters, who discuss what the most appropriate and "helpful" rating for the game would be, based off the footage and details provided. Raters represent various demographics, including parents, along with casual and "hardcore" gamers. Raters were formerly hired on a part-time basis, but in 2007, ESRB transitioned to a team of seven full-time raters, who all live in the New York City area. If a publisher does not agree with the rating that they were assigned, they may edit the game and submit the revised version for a new rating; for example, The Punisher was originally given an AO rating due to the extremely violent nature of certain scenes. To lessen their impact, these scenes were changed by its developers to be rendered in black and white; the revised cut of the game was re-submitted, and received the M rating. There is also an appeals process, but it has never been used.
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 US $1 million and a product recall, if deemed necessary. The ESRB typically posts rating information for new titles on its website 30 days after the rating process is complete; in 2008, after a number of incidents where this practice inadvertently leaked information about upcoming, unannounced games, the ESRB began to allow publishers to place embargoes on the release of ratings information until a game is officially announced.
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. In addition to the main age-based, ratings, ESRB ratings also incorporate one or more of 32 "content descriptors" which provide detailed information about the specific types and levels of objectionable content contained in a game, including categories covering different levels of violence, language, sexual content, nudity, use of alcohol or drugs, crude and mature humor, or gambling.
|Rating Pending (RP)||1994||This symbol is exclusively used in advertising and marketing materials for games that have not yet been assigned a final rating by the ESRB.|
|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 typically educational games intended for a preschool audience, and cannot contain any inappropriate or objectionable content.|
|Everyone (E)||1994 (as "Kids to Adults")||Games with this rating contain content which the board believes is suitable for those aged 6 years and up; they can contain infrequent use of "mild" or cartoon/fantasy violence, and/or mild language. Until 1998, when it was renamed "Everyone", this rating was known as Kids to Adults (K-A).|
|Everyone 10+ (E10+)||2005||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 still not to the same extent as T-rated games.|
|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 small amounts of blood), mild to moderate language or suggestive themes, and crude humor.|
|Mature (M)||1994||Games with this rating contain content which the board believes is suitable for those aged 17 or up; they can contain more intense and/or realistic portrayals of violence than T-rated games (including blood and gore), stronger sexual themes and content, and a heavier use of vulgar language.|
|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, and can contain strong sexual themes and content, graphic nudity, strong language and mature humor, and higher levels of 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) refuse to license AO-rated games on their platforms, and most retailers voluntarily refuse to stock AO-rated games.
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 as verified by photo identification, and refuse to stock video games that are rated Adults Only, or have not been rated by the organization at all. The ESRB's ratings are not legally binding under U.S. law, but there have been several attempts at both the state and federal levels to pass bills that would make it illegal for retailers games which are not rated by ESRB, or to sell games rated M or AO to minors. However, such laws have been declared unconstitutional per the Supreme Court case Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association—concerning a 2005 California law banning the sale of "violent video games", defined using a variation of the Miller test that is separate to the ESRB rating, to those under 18. The court 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 Canada, provinces such as Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Saskatchewan have laws recognizing ESRB ratings and requiring retailers to enforce them, as enforced by their respective film rating boards. As in the U.S., most retailers voluntarily enforce the ratings regardless. Prior to the implementation of the Film Classification Act, 2005, which gave it the power to enforce ESRB ratings, the Ontario Film Review Board had used its own powers to classify Manhunt as a film and give it a "Restricted" rating, legally barring its sale to those under 18 (the ESRB had given the game a Mature rating).
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 Teen or higher can appear. This allows the ESRB to restrict video game advertising "to consumers for whom the product is not rated as appropriate." A group of online gaming publications known as the ESRB Website Council operates under a similar code of conduct, which requires them to display ESRB ratings information for games that they cover, and implement systems to restrict access to audiovisual content depicting Mature or Adults Only-rated games to those who are appropriately aged.
The ESRB has considered its system to be effective, due in part to initiatives by the Board to promote enforcement and consumer awareness of the system, and efforts by retailers to prevent the sale of M-rated games to minors. The Federal Trade Commission has also praised the organization; in 2008, the FTC released the result of an investigation finding that only 20% of underaged mystery shoppers were able to successfully purchase an M-rated video game from a selection of retailers—a 22 percent reduction from 2007. By 2011, these numbers had dropped further to only 13%. In its 2009 Report to Congress, the FTC recognized the ESRB for having "the strongest self-regulatory code" of all entertainment sectors because of its enforcement of advertising and marketing guidelines.
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. Following the release of a version excluding the content, the rating was reverted to M.
In May 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, Bethesda Softworks, decided not to re-edit the game or contest the new rating, but noted that Oblivion's content was "not typical of Mature rated titles, and does not present the central themes of violence that are common to those products."
In the wake of these two incidents, the ESRB addressed hidden content with changes to its ratings policies in June 2006; publishers must disclose information surrounding all unlockable or otherwise "hidden" content in the game as part of the ratings process, and publishers can be fined up to US$1 million if they are found to have misrepresented the content of their game after further reviews. In response to the aftermath of Hot Coffee and the resulting policy changes, ESRB President Patricia Vance stated that in her opinion, "there is no other industry self-regulatory system willing or capable of imposing such swift and sweeping sanctions on its own members, which in this particular case resulted in the removal of a top-selling product from the market and a major loss of sales."
The ESRB has often been accused of not rating certain games, such as Manhunt and the Grand Theft Auto series, harshly enough for violence and other related themes, and for lacking transparency in certain aspects of the ratings process. Critics have argued that some games only received the M rating rather than the stricter AO rating because of the commercial effects of such a rating; console manufacturers and most retailers refuse to license or sell AO-rated games, dramatically affecting their commercial availability. An ESRB representative stated that the Board uses the AO rating when warranted, even due to violence, and that in most occasions, publishers would edit the game to meet the M rating to ensure wide commercial availability instead of keeping the AO rating. In the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, their respective film classification boards classified the M-rated games Soldier of Fortune and Manhunt respectively as films due concerns over the nature of their content, and gave them "Restricted" ratings, legally restricting their sale to adults.
In 2005, the National Institute on Media and the Family gave the Board an "F" rating for "Ratings Accuracy" on a MediaWise report card, arguing that the AO rating was seldom-used because the organization is controlled by the video game industry, M-rated games were becoming progressively more explicit yearly, and that "study after study shows that ratings would be stricter if parents were doing the job. It took explicit porn to get Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas an AO rating, even though the original version, still rated M, rewards players whose on-screen persona had sex with prostitutes and then killed them. We have been calling for AO ratings for the Grand Theft Auto series for years—now it is clear why the ESRB has ignored our request." The ESRB disputed these claims, arguing that the organization "relies on flawed research and ignores any and all conflicting evidence", was "imposing its own narrow values and morality on the rest of the country, regardless that it has little evidence to show that parents agree with their point of view", and did not reply to the ESRB's request for comments following its report card in 2004. The board also pointed out that the NIMF's study used data from PSVRatings, a for-profit competitor to the ESRB.
Primarily in response to the Hot Coffee controversy, two U.S. politicians proposed bills in late 2006 to place governmental oversight on aspects of the ESRB rating process; Michigan Senator Fred Upton (who was a major critic against Rockstar during the controversy) proposed the Video Game Decency Act, which would have classified misrepresenting the content of a video game to receive a lower rating an "unfair or deceptive act or practice affecting commerce". Upton argued that the bill would "restore parents’ trust in a system in which game makers had previously done an end-run around the process to deliver violent and pornographic material to our kids. Parents across the country can breathe a sigh of relief as this legislation goes hand in hand with the mission of the industry’s own ratings system." U.S. Senator Sam Brownback proposed a bill known as the Truth in Video Game Rating Act, which would have made it illegal for publishers to misrepresent the playable content of a game to a ratings organization, forced the ESRB to have full, hands-on access to games instead of just video footage, and have initiated a government study on the "effectiveness" of the organization and the possibility of forming a new ratings organization that would be independent from the video game industry.
Adults Only rating
The negative stigma of the Adults Only rating itself has also been criticized for stifling the ability for video game developers to have creative freedom in their portrayal of certain themes, at the risk of being commercially unviable due to publishers' objections to AO-rated content. ESRB President Patricia Vance argued that applying self-censorship to ensure marketability was a compromise that is "true in every entertainment medium", but still believed that the idea of the AO rating eventually becoming acceptable would be a good thing for the ESRB system. The stigma is primarily affected by a perception by the industry and other activists that video games are generally considered children's products; for example, the existence of a Wii port of Manhunt 2 was condemned by Hillary Clinton over fears that children could use the game's motion controls to "act out each of the many graphic torture scenes and murders [in the game]."
It has also been influenced by the types of games that have received the AO rating; Peter Payne, head of Peach Princess (a developer which translates Japanese eroge visual novels), believed that the AO rating had acquired a "smutty" and "tasteless" reputation since the majority of AO-rated titles were either niche titles for specialized markets (such as their visual novels), or sexually explicit titles of low quality, such as Riana Rouge (which Polygon described as a game which had the quality of the average adult movie, and "[aimed] to do nothing more than tell low-brow jokes and show nude women prancing around") and Lula 3D (which was touted as having "Bouncin' Boobs Technology" as a selling point). By contrast, the ESRB has only officially given out the AO rating for violence alone twice: Thrill Kill received an AO rating with content descriptors for Animated Violence and Animated Blood and Gore, but was never released after its original publisher, Virgin Entertainment, was purchased by Electronic Arts—whose staff objected to the game's content. Manhunt 2 also received an AO rating for its extreme violence; while the uncut version would be released exclusively for PCs, the console versions were edited to meet the M rating.
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