Rating the ESRB

How does the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the ESRB, rate among gamers? We tend to think of this as a matter of how consumers have voted when asked if they are satisfied with it. But rating the ESRB means asking if it gives us clear and accurate expectations of our games. Ostensibly, it’s designed to give consumers information about what they’re buying.

Current ESRB ratings are more an indicator of how well a game can sell even though it’s only moderately informative of the kind of sensitive content in games; it’s pretty non-specific especially when we look at how close each rating is in description. Titles with the most deadly rating (Adult Only) are sold in fewer retail locations, discouraging developers from using it even when appropriate. Consumers might be intimidated by seeing “AO” printed on the box, further shrinking potential market share. Furthermore, in their eagerness to reach the widest market, developers are loathe to give the M (Mature) rating even to games that deserve it. The primary goal of developers seems to be either an E rating or a T rating. The latter opens up to a whole new host of issues and questions surrounding exactly who plays games and why studios should pander to the T crowd.

Last year, most games given a rating by the ESRB were rated E for everyone, but how does that happen when the hottest, best-selling titles of the year feature sustained violence (which is worthy of an AO rating according to them)?

Rating the ESRB

Typical anywhere, entertainment media is usually regulated by the government to ensure producers aren’t airing live executions, raunchy sex scenes, and gratuitous obscenities on the public airwaves. The ESRB was created by the Entertainment Software Association under the threat of a government run rating agency. In the end, we got the ESRB. The goal was to do pretty much what movie ratings do: give consumers warning information about the sensitivity of the content. Lofty ideals and admirable goals don’t always translate into effective standards though. As a consumer, the ESRB has mixed results despite high approval ratings. Part of the problem is that the ratings are ambiguous enough to be worthless or the criteria is generic enough to say nothing and everything. I can’t know the content of a game by reading the label, which makes judging ESRB effectiveness a tough thing to do. Current ratings, at best, recommend appropriate age groups.

Before congress approved the ESRB in 1994, the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) system was widely used by game companies. This rating system made a lot of sense too. In terms of informing consumers about content, it was superior to ESRB.



rsac_ratingsIt’s goal was to stay away from an age-based recommendations system in favor of rating the actual content of the software. Consumers (especially parents) were much more concerned with three main kinds of content in their entertainment: language, violence, and sex. Each category could be rated independently from 0-4. Any game with a 0 in each category was labeled All Audiences.

So why’d we get rid of this system? RSAC was phased out in 1999 and the ESRB turned to the simplicity of an age-based recommendation system. It’s clear benefits likely won the day:

  • obscure content ratings makes purchase fast and easy.
  • smaller label = more real estate to promote the game
  • public familiarity with age-based rulesets (generally based on legal precedents, such as those under 18 can’t purchase/watch porn; therefore, games with sex are only for those 18 +)

While the ESRB ratings system has all these “features”, it also has drawbacks. The ratings aren’t as informative as the RSAC system. The age restrictions also make the ratings much more ambiguous at setting expectations. I think the most important impact has to be the de facto censorship at work in the ratings. Unlike the RSAC, the ESRB flat out states what is and is not acceptable for children. Parents aren’t making any decisions, but taking their word for it. On the flipside, it dictates to developers what their audiences can and cannot see by using age brackets. If the industry was still using a system such as the RSAC, the only persons deciding what is and is not appropriate would be consumers. The direct ratings on specific aspects of the content means a parent can decide that their 13 year old can play games rated 3 for violence and 0 for sex/nudity, or that the 9 year old can play games rated 2 for language and 1 for violence and nudity. This puts the power directly into the hands of parents and players.

Back in 2005 this very issue came up with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The game received an M rating at first, but once Hot Coffee was discovered, it cost the company millions. They had to pull the games off of shelves after the ESRB changed their rating from M to AO. Companies were paying attenion. Part of the take away was to keep content moderate enough to get ratings that grant access to the widest audience. Since the ESRB doesn’t rate the specific content, part of the consequence is consumers choose games based on the age of the player.

Reasonable Expectations

While only 5% of games rated by the ESRB in 2012 were rated M, nearly half were rated E (everyone). Yet the top grossing games for the past few years have been M rated titles. While violent and/or graphic games are a small portion of the games created, they are the most popular. Their influence in popular culture is so strong that it gives the impression that more games are M rated!

These rankings are for console titles and I've highlighted the M + ratings from the ESRB.

These rankings are for console titles and I’ve highlighted the M + ratings from the ESRB.

Is the ESRB succeeding in its purpose? Part of the mission of the ESRB is to help consumers make informed decisions. How informed does a Mature rating on Gears of War or Call of Duty make me about the sensitive content of the game?

The definitions are so similar that the only clearly defined criteria is the age group.

  • Teen (T): Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language.
  • Mature (M): Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.
  • Adult Only (AO): Content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency.

The wording “May contain…” is purposely ambiguous because the only decisive criteria is the age grouping. “The game might have violence, but generally only those 13 and up should play it,” is how this reads. The age restrictions could remain while all other descriptions were dropped and the ESRB ratings would have the exact same net effect on consumer trends. It is the age restrictions which consumers are drawn to, and those restrictions are based on current laws for minors (drink, smoke, buy porn, vote, etc). The inevitable conclusion is that the ratings do less for informing consumers about the content than they do censoring games and pretending the audience is children.

Which brings me to my next point: Adults play these games too. What use is an age recommendation if I want to know how explicit the content is for myself? The ESRB is designed to help parents rate games for their kids – a significant enough oversight – but it ignores the fact that most gamers are not children. The overwhelming majority are working adults. How useful is the rating system for them? The ESA doesn’t even collect data on that question. The mission statement plainly announces that they’re more concerned about helping parents. That’s enough of an indictment on the usefulness of the ESRB alone.

In the latest ESA surveys, parents overwhelmingly agree that the ratings are helpful (88%). However, that’s an easy number to achieve when you’re the only game rating agency around and when your ratings are so broad and non-specific. There’s room and opportunity for a system similar to RSAC, but consumer agencies don’t seem worried about it.

What with determining the quality of the content ratings, the impact on developer choices to use the system slips under the radar. There’s pressure to use the ratings as a marketing tool. It’s a fair question to ask whether the system has too great an impact on the content development of our video games.

Game developers have shown that they will change things about a game in order to achieve the ratings that will net them the maximum audience, just like Rockstar did. Instead of seeing ratings as an aid to consumers, developers also see them as a constraint on sales. Consumers need to be able to trust developers when they place an M on their game. Developers should have to care about the amount and intensity of sensitive content in their games. If we want less gratuitous violence, then that means more rigorous and meaningful content standards. Most importantly, ratings systems need to be consumer and developer neutral such as what the RSAC achieved despite it’s flaws. By directly describing the content without regard for age, the choice was left strictly up to consumers taste while allowing developers to cater directly to a specific audience.

So how would you rate the ESRB? I’d have to give it an L for “Limited Usefulness” and I think I’m being generous. The system has some pretty major shortcomings, but if they can pull the strengths of the RSAC system with the simplicity of the current gamers, developers and parents alike could have a system that serves us equally.


Scree Tags: #esrb #gamertalk