The Needles

Inappropriate Content: A Brief History of Videogame Ratings and the ESRB


The upheaval struck on two fronts. First were the arcades, hit with the release of Mortal Kombat, a fighting game of unprecedented violence. With heightened realism provided by the use of digitized actors rather than hand-drawn characters, the game featured vicious combinations of fighting moves, Romero-worthy bloodletting and vocal exhortations to “finish” your enemy with special “fatalities.” Possibly the most controversial fighting game ever released, Mortal Kombat’s blend of over-the-top violence and thrilling fights proved irresistible to gamers, turning it into a tremendous success and laying the foundation for a franchise that continues to this day.

Then came the home market later that same year, faced with a similar assault in the guise of the infamous Night Trap. With over an hour and a half of full-motion video and a production cost of $1.5 million, Night Trap told the story of a slumber party gone wrong and the young, nightgown-wearing houseguests who must be saved from horrible fates by the voyeuristic gamer. A commercial flop, the game’s sexually exploitative setting and gameplay nonetheless made it a focal point of Congressional hearings on offensive videogame content.

Led by U.S. Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl, the hearings ran from late 1992 into 1993, and resulted in an ultimatum for the industry: Form a workable, self-regulated rating system for videogames within one year, or prepare for the U.S. federal government to implement one of its own. The threat of government regulation led to the formation of not just one but a handful of rating schemes from different corners of the industry.

Sega of America led the charge with the short-lived Videogame Rating Council. Established in 1993, the system was intended to cover all U.S. releases of games for the Sega Genesis, Game Gear and Sega CD. The VRC featured three ratings: General Audiences, MA-13 (Parental Discretion Advised) and MA-17 (Not Appropriate For Minors). The system was simultaneously simplistic and confusing; the lack of rating detail, combined with Sega’s failure to document or explain their meaning, often left consumers puzzled over the actual nature of the game’s content.

Also founded in 1993 was the 3DO Rating System, for games released in North America on the 3DO console. Similar to Sega’s VRC, the 3DO Rating System was even narrower in focus – 3DO games only, which were scant in number – and featured four vague but easy-to-follow ratings: E (Everyone), 12 (Parental Guidance for 12 and Under), 17 (Parental Guidance for 17 and Under), and AO (Adults Only). In a significant improvement over Sega’s VRC, details of the in-game content would be contained on the back of the box.

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But neither of these systems adequately addressed the demands of the U.S. Congress, and neither survived to see the close of 1994. They did, however, provide a template for a third and somewhat more successful attempt at a comprehensive rating system that would satisfy videogaming critics: The Software Publishers Assocation’s Recreational Software Advisory Council. The RSAC provided five levels of ratings in the categories of Violence, Nudity-Sex and Language. Despite lacking an age-based rating, the system was more detailed than its predecessors while remaining comparatively simple to understand, and for awhile it saw reasonably widespread acceptance. Unfortunately, it suffered from one major, fatal flaw: The RSAC system was for PC software only, inapplicable to console releases. This limitation, exacerbated by the 1995 debut of the explosively popular PlayStation console, rendered the RSAC system all but irrelevant, and in 1999 it quietly passed on.

The big dog in the fight was the result of the April 1994 formation of the Interactive Digital Software Association, a trade group assembled from the most powerful game developers and publishers in the country. In July 1994, the IDSA (renamed to the Entertainment Software Association in 2003) presented to Congress its proposal for an industry-controlled rating system; in September of that same year, the Entertainment Software Rating Board was unveiled.

Initially, the ESRB system included five ratings: Early Childhood, Kids to Adults, Teen, Mature and Adults Only. Over the years the system would mature and be refined to meet the needs of both a growing industry and an expanding gamer demographic. The rating stamps would change to become more visible, and in 1998 the Kids to Adults rating was replaced with an Everyone (E) rating. Content descriptors have been changed and added over the years, giving greater specificity to the ratings. Currently, the ESRB uses a two-tiered system with six age-based ratings, complemented by 32 content descriptors that offer detailed information about a game, including the presence of everything from crude humor to tobacco references and animated blood.

ESRB “raters,” the majority of whom have experience with children via education, profession or parenthood, work for the Board on a part-time basis. After a publisher submits responses to a detailed questionnaire describing a game’s content, a minimum of three raters, working independently of one another, will view video footage of all pertinent content, described on the ESRB web site as “including the most extreme instances, across all relevant categories including but not limited to violence, language, sex, controlled substances and gambling.” Following the notorious 2005 “Hot Coffee” controversy surrounding Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, content that is not playable but still present in the code must also be disclosed. While the raters do not play the games themselves, the ESRB maintains in-house “game experts” who play release versions of both a random sample of games as well as hand-selected titles to ensure ongoing compliance with the submission and rating system.

Following the video review, raters recommend age-based ratings and descriptors for specific game content. Members of the ESRB staff check the recommendations for consensus, conduct a “parity examination” to ensure consistency in rating assignments, and finally, issue the official rating to the publisher. The publisher in turn may then accept the rating, appeal an unfavorable rating to the ESRB Appeals Board or withdraw the game for modification and resubmission in an attempt to win a more desirable rating. In this fashion, the ESRB has rated an average of over 1,000 games per year, since its creation; in 2006, the Board granted ratings to 1,285 games.

Despite its Congressional approval, the ESRB has not operated without controversy. A common complaint leveled by critics relates to the apparent reluctance of the ESRB to slap an Adults-Only rating on videogames. Of the over 13,000 games rated by the ESRB since its creation, only 23 have received an AO rating. The accusations of excessively industry-friendly rating assignments are fueled by the fact that only three of those games were given the rating due to extreme violent content, which critics claim is proof that the agency is beholden to the industry rather than the public interest.

Criticism such as this, coupled with the voluntary, non-legislative nature of the ESRB, has led to sporadic calls for government regulation of the videogame industry over the years. In 2005, Senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, Tim Johnson and Evan Bayh introduced a bill known as the Family Entertainment Protection Act, which would impose hefty fines on individuals or businesses found selling M- or AO-rated games to minors, as well as launch an investigation into the ESRB to determine whether it has been properly rating games. More recently have been the Truth in Video Game Rating Act, introduced by Senator Sam Brownback, which would require the ESRB to have access to the entire content of rating-pending games as well as “hands-on time” with them, and the Video Game Decency Act from Congressman Fred Upton, which would “prohibit deceptive acts and practices in the content rating and labeling of video games.”

The ESRB has lately shown signs of moving more aggressively to counter these criticisms. In a high-profile decision, it recently rated Take-Two’s planned Manhunt 2, developed by perennial industry bad-boy Rockstar, as Adults Only. It also requested the removal of Dark Sector promotional trailers from the Gaming Today and FileFront sites due to a lack of appropriate age-gating. (Both services claimed age-gates were in place, but nonetheless complied with the request.) Most recently, on July 18 the agency took 3D Realms to task for its failure to conform to the ESRB’s Advertising Review Council guidelines. ESRB President Patricia Vance has implied these moves are routine, saying they are “merely a reflection of ESRB fulfilling its obligations to the industry to enforce the guidelines it has adopted.” Many, however, feel the Board’s more proactive behavior is a response to increasing pressure for legislative regulation in the face of ESRB ineffectiveness.

Whether that pressure continues to grow, regardless of the perceived value of the ESRB, is an open question. In its favor is the simple fact that the ESRB is a proven system, well-established and widely recognized. The Board sponsors numerous initiatives and educational programs in an effort to keep parents abreast of what their children are playing, and recent surveys indicate a high and growing level of awareness among parents of the rating system. Perhaps most important in the short term, critics of the current system have yet to put forward alternatives beyond heavy penalties for the sale of inappropriate games to minors, a measure that has already been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Courts of individual states, including Michigan, Illinois and Louisiana. Out of necessity, the ESRB may become a more vocal and interventionist agency, but much the same as it was during its inception, it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.

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