The ESRB's effectiveness has come under debate many times over the past several years. Most of those debates have focused on whether the current ratings system can be improved. After all, every time a parent complains about objectionable content in their child's game, it brings the system into question. Was the parent aware of the ESRB system and its ratings? Were the ratings not clear enough to the parent? No matter how well thought out a rating system is, it isn't of much use if the people it's meant to inform aren't listening. Which raises a more fundamental question: Is a ratings system even necessary at all?
Not too long ago, it was a foregone conclusion that to release a game you needed an ESRB rating. Quite simply, retailers wouldn't carry games that didn't have that letter on their box. That is no longer true in our age of digital distribution. Developers can easily release games directly from their own websites now. Even the major online video game marketplaces, like Steam, don't require an ESRB rating from games.
The most extreme example is the rise of iPhone and iPad games over the last few years. Mobile gaming on iOS became a huge phenomenon because of the vast variety of games made by everyone from the first-time amateur coder to seasoned industry veterans. Many of those games are even available for free. Both of these things are possible specifically because Apple does not require games to be rated by the ESRB.
For even a small game to receive an ESRB rating, developers have to pay up. To be exact, a smaller game, which the ESRB defines as a budget under $250,000, will pay a fee of $500 for an E, T, or M to slap on its digital box. For a first-time developer making a game in their spare time while working a regular 9-5 job, this is a huge hurtle. It certainly makes offering a free game harder to justify if the developer has to pay an extra fee just to release it.
I've spoken with many developers of Xbox indie games, which also don't require ESRB ratings, and rating fees are one of the primary reasons they don't port games to other systems like Sony's PSP Minis platform. Similarly, even a casual observer can see that iOS games ported to PSP Minis cost at least a dollar more as the developers try and recoup the ESRB cost. With many of these smaller games only selling a few hundred copies, they often don't turn a $500 profit even without paying ESRB fees.
For major publishers this isn't as much of an issue. Even though larger budget games come with higher fees, it's nothing that the EAs and Ubisofts of the industry can't afford. But it wasn't those larger publishers that made games like Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Terrarria, and The Binding of Isaac. There is more variety in games today then ever before, in large part due to smaller developers able to create games without such restrictions, either in budget or in content.
That said, the ESRB still has a place in the video game industry. The ratings themselves serve a purpose, at least for those parents who care enough about their children to read them. Parental controls on consoles even use those ratings to allow parents to restrict certain content. Every once in a while an uproar is made by a parent finding inappropriate content in their child's game, but I am unsympathetic to irresponsible parents who rely on games as a babysitter rather than actually paying attention to their own child and their child's interests.
I witnessed this first-hand recently when a child, no older than five, handed a game case to his father in a GameStop. The father took the game to the cash register and was about to pay when he was astonished by the clerk mentioning that the game, Assassin's Creed apparently, was rated M for a number of reasons. You know, reasons that would be obvious by the fact that the word "assassin" is right there in the title. The ESRB is not to blame for that father, or other similarly ignorant parents like him.
Thankfully, not all parents are so ill-informed. And it is for those responsible ones that the ESRB still serves a valuable purpose. As long as the ratings can still serve that purpose, they will have a place in video games. The ESRB was built around the console market, where parents predominantly shop and games require big budgets and bigger publishers to produce. There, it still has value. But in digital markets where independent developers can more easily self-publish and the person buying games is the player rather than the parent, ratings become far less of a necessity.
The video game industry has grown and evolved to the point where there is no single solution that can be applied to the full spectrum of games. It's one thing to ask whether the ESRB should be a used, but it's a far more valuable question to ask when and where.
By Scott Nichols
CCC Contributing 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.*