The Entertainment Software Rating Board was established in 1994 by the Interactive Digital Software Association for the purpose of regulating and enforcing ratings and advertising guidelines for videogames in North America. Game publishers voluntarily place one of eight ratings designated by the ESRB on their game and advertising materials with a brief pre-written description of the content that has earned the game that rating.
ESRB rating system
The ESRB Rating System combines age-based rating icons:
- EC (Early Childhood–may be suitable for age 3 years and above)
- E (Everyone 6 years and above)
- E10 (Everyone 10 years and older)
- T (Teen–13 years and above)
- M (Mature–17 years and above)
- AO (Adults Only–only for 18 years and above)
usually with one or more content descriptors, including violence, sexual content, language, use of controlled substances, and gambling, that highlight content in the game that may be of interest or concern to parents.
Overall, the vast majority of games are rated E, with approximately 32% of games rated either T (24%) or M (8%). AO-rated games constitute less than 0.02% of games rated. Despite their relatively small percentage in terms of number of games rated, M-rated games, in any given year, account for 15% or more of videogame sales.
In addition to appearing on the videogame packaging, the ESRB ratings are also available digitally in the game metadata thereby enabling videogame platforms to screen content based on the ratings. Virtually all current generation videogame platforms contain tools that block by ESRB rating, including Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3, and Windows Vista operating system.
Some devices also allow parents to control with whom their children play videogames online and how and when they play, as well as to restrict or track the amount of time the children spend playing the games. Games that include an online component are tagged "Game Experience May Change During Online Play" to give notice to users that the online content may not fall into the same rating category as the game due to possible user-generated content.
ESRB advertising guidelines
The ESRB's advertising guidelines The "Ad Code" require game companies to include this rating information on product packaging and in game advertising. The system has evolved over the years to respond to new developments and concerns regarding electronic games. In March 2005, for example, the ESRB added a new rating category — E10+ — to identify those games with content that might be more suitable for older children.
Procedure for obtaining ESRB rating
To obtain a game rating from the ESRB, companies must submit a ratings application answering questions about game content and describing scenes in the game that, for example, depict violence, use offensive language, show the use of drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, or contain sexual or suggestive content. In addition, they must provide footage of the game (generally no longer than forty-five minutes) showing the most extreme content of the game in each of those areas. Working independently, three raters then view the game footage (but not the questionnaire) and recommend the rating and content descriptors they believe are most appropriate. According to the ESRB website, additional raters may be used if needed to achieve a consensus on a rating and content descriptors. Once a consensus is reached, the ESRB then issues an official rating certificate to the game's publisher.
Concurrent with the rating submission, companies may also apply for a Rating Pending ("RP") rating. The RP icon must appear in advertising for the game and may appear on packaging produced for marketing or promotional purposes only. Companies are free to promote and accept orders for games that the ESRB has not yet rated. Therefore, consumers can order a game to which the ESRB might ultimately assign a more restrictive rating than consumers had anticipated.
Within fifteen days after release of the game, a game company is required to submit game packaging and a final version of the game to the ESRB. The ESRB checks the game packaging to see if the rating information is properly displayed and may play the final game to verify that all the information provided during the rating process was accurate and complete.
Some have criticized the ESRB for not playing through each game before issuing a rating. As noted above, raters see excerpts from the game, selected by the game publishers, meant to reveal the most extreme content in the game. Because of this practice, raters may not see the full extent of some content in a game. On the other hand, the ESRB has significantly enhanced its fines for any company that fails to disclose fully all pertinent content on a game disc that may be relevant to a rating when seeking an ESRB rating.
The ESRB asserts that reviewing the entire content of games would likely necessitate a change in who does the review, and lengthen the review process. Given the length of games (up to fifty to one hundred hours) and the sophistication and skill needed to play a game through all levels, the ESRB claims it would have to use expert gamers to rate the game, as opposed to the representatives of the general public and of parents they use now. According to the ESRB, using gamers to rate games "would likely bias rating assignments as they would surely bring a different sensibility to content than the pool of raters [it has] always used." In addition, it would change the practice of game publishers, which typically submit games for rating prior to their completion.
Critics also have argued that children have too easy access to M-rated games. For example, in 2005 the National Institute on Media and the Family surveyed over 600 4th through 12th grade students and found that seven of ten children report playing M-rated games, with 61% of children reporting that they own their own M-rated games. In addition, 60% of children list at least one M-rated game as their favorite (75% of boys and 35% of girls).
Finally, some consumer groups question whether the ESRB is truly independent of the gaming industry given that its board and funding come from industry sources. They believe this may contribute to raters assigning less restrictive ratings than warranted based on the game's content because of economic pressures by industry members, particularly in the area of M-rated games. Specifically, because most major retailers will not stock AO-rated games, some consumer groups believe raters are pressured into assigning an M rating to games with an increasing amount of violence. The ESRB counters that this concern instead leads to industry members who seek to avoid the AO rating to delete scenes that would otherwise result in that rating either before submitting the game, or during the rating process.
- See ESRB, Game Ratings and Descriptor Guide (full-text).
- See Entertainment Software Ass'n ("ESA"), Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry, at 4 (2006) (full-text).
- Principles and Guidelines for Responsible Advertising Practices & Advertising Code of Conduct for the Entertainment Software Industry ("Ad Code") (as amended April 1, 2006) at 11, 32.
- See ESRB Press Release, New Video Game Rating Category, 'E10+, Added to ESRB Rating System (Mar. 2, 2005) (full-text).
- Game raters are recruited from the New York City area. They are all adults, at least 18, and are not necessarily gamers. Typically, they may have some experience with children and have no ties to the entertainment software industry. They are specially trained by the ESRB and work on a part-time basis, attending no more than one two- to three-hour rating session per week. See Testimony of Patricia Vance, President, ESRB before the U.S. Senate Comm. on the Judiciary, Subcomm. on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights at 3 (Mar. 29, 2006).
- See ESRB, Ratings Process (full-text).
- For advertisements that are placed before the ESRB has assigned a rating, the Ad Code requires companies to use their best efforts to place ads in media with "an audience that is appropriate for the content within the title. Such efforts should be based on the company's good faith effort and reasonable expectations regarding the anticipated rating." See Ad Code, at 35.
- The rating icon must be on the package front; the content descriptors are placed on the back of packaging next to the rating icon. Ad Code, at 11-12.
- Id. The ESRB does not play through every game following its release. Instead, it plays the final version of a small percentage of games, randomly selected, as well as a number of hand-selected titles. Each review takes about four hours.
- The ESRB took this step in response to the "Hot Coffee" controversy, where sexually explicit scenes that the game developer had removed from normal game play subsequently became accessible when a third party hacked into the game software, created a program called "Hot Coffee" that would render this content playable if downloaded by players of the game's PC version, and then disseminated this program on the Internet. See ESRB Press Release, ESRB Concludes Investigation into Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Revokes Mature (M) Rating (July 20, 2005) (full-text). For details of the FTC's investigation and subsequent action in response to the game developer's and publisher's allegedly deceptive marketing of this game. See Makers of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Settle FTC Charges (June 8, 2006) (full-text).
- Written Testimony of Patricia Vance, President, ESRB, Hearing Before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcomm. on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, at 4 (July 14, 2006) (full-text).
- See Chris Fusco, Boy, 15, Has No Trouble Buying Violent, M-Rated Video Games, Chicago Sun-Times (Jan. 3, 2005) (full-text).
- See National Inst. on Media and the Family, 10th Annual MediaWise Video and Computer Game Report Card (Nov. 29, 2005) (full-text). Because twelfth grade students were included in the survey, it is likely that some of the students who used M-rated games were 17 or older.
- See, e.g., Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A Fourth Follow-Up Review of Industry Practices in the Motion Picture, Music Recording & Electronic Game Industries, App. A, at 4 (July 2004) (full-text). It is unclear how an industry's self-regulatory system would be funded other than through industry sources.
- See ESRB Press Release, Comments on MediaWise Video Game Report Card 2005" (full-text).