The little black-and-white box signifying the Entertainment Software Rating Board's (ESRB) verdict should be familiar to all gamers. After all, during your teenage years, that little box dictates what games you can and can't play, in theory at least. Of course, it's not an infallible system: it's not illegal (nationally; it is in some states) to buy a game that's rated higher than your age, though most major retailers are strict in that regard. There's still the fact that parents will buy games for their kids, perhaps ignoring the rating. And then there's perhaps the most important issue: who gets to decide what's too much for a teenager to handle, anyway? Ultimately, the intentions of the ESRB are admirable. After all, some games are just too much for younger kids. But the organization has received a lot of criticism over the years. Is it an outdated system?
The process of rating a game is relatively simple. The publisher sends video footage of the most explicit moments of the game, whether that's sex, violence, or language. At the same time, a questionnaire is submitted giving more specific details regarding the game's content. There's a pool of ESRB raters, and three of these are called upon at random to evaluate the material independently. In the event of disagreement, additional raters will review the material to seek a majority result. This certification, once it has been approved by additional ESRB personnel, can be appealed by the publisher. The certification is only final once a finished copy of the game has been submitted for approval, the packaging is reviewed, and personnel play the game. If it is found to be in breach of the information originally submitted, the publisher could face a fine. Once the game has its final rating, it can be sold nationwide. It's a reasonable system, though in an ideal world those evaluating it would play the game fully, to get an idea of what the game is all about.
The simple rating system is easy to understand and recognizable. In contrast, there's an issue in the UK whereby games are rated under two different systems: PEGI (Pan-European Game Information), which is more similar to the ESRB, and the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification). The problem here is that the BBFC system is more recognizable: the board itself has been around for nearly a century, while the current rating system has been used in cinemas and home video for twenty-five years. Enforcement is stricter, and, simply put, people pay more attention to the deep red "18" certificate than the equivalent PEGI stamp. Despite assurances that all games would be rated by one board or the other, there is still a division between the two. The ESRB has no such problems, as they certify all games released in the US. This strengthens the authority of the certificate, in theory inspiring greater confidence in consumers.
And yet the system is constantly under criticism. In some respects, it should be: there's a thin line between certification and censorship, and as the primary organization fulfilling the role of certification for video games, the board should be under constant scrutiny. The power to decide who gets to view certain materials, whether you consider video games as art or entertainment, is something not to be taken lightly, especially when you consider that the ESRB is a self-regulated part of the video game industry.
The biggest criticisms of the ESRB always revolve around its "M" for Mature (17+) and "AO" for Adults Only (18+) ratings. Quite simply, this is where most of the controversial content can be found. It has been argued, however, that the AO rating is underused. Dozens of games are rated "18" in the UK every year, while the same games receive an M rating in the US: recent examples include Aliens vs. Predator and Left 4 Dead 2. While this may simply be indicative of a stricter ratings system in the UK, it also points to a larger problem: the AO rating has only been used some twenty-three times, and only twice purely for violence. As soon as sexual content is involved, the ESRB takes a much harsher approach. This disparity suggests either that violence isn't a big concern to the ESRB, or that sex is too big a concern. This issue with sex isn't restricted to the ESRB, however. Take, for example, Mexican teen movie Y Tu Mama Tambien, which was released unrated to avoid the inevitable NC-17 rating from the MPAA: an action which would, essentially, prohibit teens from watching an insightful movie about what they will, or already do, get up to themselves.
Despite this resistance to sex in the media, violence has far less trouble with censorship. As previously mentioned, Left 4 Dead 2 and Aliens vs. Predator were released with M ratings, despite being violent enough to be banned in Australia (Aliens vs. Predator's ban was lifted before release). Previous controversies include the Rockstar title Manhunt, which requires players to murder gang members in creatively violent ways: the more extreme, the better. At the end of each level, the player is rated on his/her abilities. Despite the shocking level of violence in the game, it still received an M rating.
More recent controversies include the now infamous "Hot Coffee" incident in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. After the game received an M rating from the ESRB, it was revealed that the PC and PS2 versions could be modded to unlock a sex minigame. Parents across the country were outraged (despite needing to void the EULA to access the material, and despite the content being nowhere near as graphic as the violence in the rest of the game). Copies of the game were recalled and recertified as AO after a legal battle. As another example, Oblivion suffered a similar problem. Released with a "T" for Teen rating, the decision came under scrutiny after modders unlocked "nude" character textures in the game. The game was recertified M, despite these textures not being found in the main game at any point, while the ESRB pointed towards an increased level of violence compared to what, they claimed, was initially presented to them as an additional reason for recertification. While Bethesda defended its honesty regarding the levels of violence, it conceded to the recertification. These very public controversies underscore one major problem: the ESRB cannot definitively rate games the same way as other media, for example the MPAA and movies. The problem is that a game is built of code which, in many instances, is fallible (as illustrated above). There's simply no precedent for this with media ratings decisions, and seems to act as decent fuel for those looking to build up the anti-video game fire.
But is the ESRB broken? Surveys show it's a trusted system, one which serves its purpose consistently. But it's not foolproof: the aforementioned controversies, along with the apparent aversion to sex lead to questions regarding the board's legitimacy. And that's assuming that every consumer pays attention to the certificate in the first place. The board has, admittedly, put a lot of energy into awareness of its methods and certificates, through various councils, partnerships and campaigns. It may be getting outdated, but the ESRB is, in some ways, the battleground between video game development and the public: it will almost inevitably be involved in any controversy relating to the morality of video games, and we should be thankful that, at the end of the day, they are on our side.
CCC Freelance Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*