There probably isn't a single gamer in North America who hasn't heard of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Founded in 1994, the ESRB was created as the end product of several individual rating systems, put into play after the federal government demanded the entertainment software industry provide a classification which would forewarn consumers about the game's content. A group of randomly selected raters working for the ESRB review each new game's most graphic content and determine which age group to place it in. This system was deemed necessary as graphics and sound became advanced enough to vividly portray realistic blood, gore, and nudity, among other things. Games such as the original Mortal Kombat and Doom were used as evidence against the then unsupervised video game industry. But what if the content was never scrutinized, or a freedom of expression defense claimed victory? Would games be a lot different than they are today?
Shockingly (or possibly not), the general answer is no. While some content may be pushed farther due to the lack of restrictions, much of what we see would be the same.
First, you have to understand that when the ESRB is brought up in the media due to some sort of controversy, it is almost always because a game is given a Mature rating, which some of the populace feel should be rated Adults Only. But although these M-rated titles make up the brunt of the core gamer's library, they are still only a fraction of the entire industry. Think of it this way: would Super Mario Galaxy be any different without a rating slapped on its case? No. Basically anything with a Teen rating or lower would have very little, if any, divergences in content. So we must go back to the games possessing the more unsavory subject matter and see how they would differ.
A rating from the ESRB basically determines how a game can be sold in a retail market and who it can be sold to, as well as which gaming companies will license it. AO (Adults Only)-rated games cannot be sold at major retailers, and the big three gaming giants (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo) will not license these games for their systems. So should a developer produce a game that gets branded with an AO, their options are severely limited, and any retail success is null and void. Therefore, developers and publishers of more mature content must always be aware of this, and many times rework their design to satisfy the Board.
But the line between a Mature rating and an Adults Only rating is also a grey area, and is itself constantly the cause of mainstream controversy. Violence and sexual activities are the real red buttons when it comes to tolerance in the States, but the former receives an awful lot of leeway while the latter is strictly enforced. If we use the most recent version Mortal Kombat as an example, we have a clear indication of how limber the violence string is—with the various ways of gratuitously dismembering your opponents—when it comes to a 17+ rating. But have Kitana fight topless and—Bam! Off the shelves it goes.
Since the inception of the ESRB, twenty-three games have earned an Adults Only rating, with twenty of them in the category because of sexually explicit content. Debates about what standards the ESRB uses as far justifying heavy violent content against only mildly suggestive sexual themes will most likely continue unless we see major restructuring in the scale system.
Finally, video game retailers must enforce a policy not to sell M-rated games to minors, which—although many clerks keep a heavy monitor on it—we all know isn't full proof. Anyone who's played online deathmatches against a throng of kiddies knows this to be true. For the most part, parents are the culprits who purchase the games as gifts for their children, either through ignorance of the system or willful negligence by not agreeing with the rating. Whatever the case, the ESRB has tried to keep this questionable content away from children, but the wall is far from impregnable.
The bottom line: If the Entertainment Software Rating Board never existed, games intended for minors would remain the same, violent games may be a little more graphic (but not much), games that incorporate romance would include any scenes the developers desired, and sex games would be just another genre in the gaming pool. As for retailers, most still have their own criterion about the products they sell. But if this standard were absent, it would become the sole responsibility of the parent to ensure their child doesn't walk through the front door with a copy of Manhunt 2.
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.*