The Needles

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

Andy Chalk | 20 Jul 2007 17:00
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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.

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