What is it?
The ESRB is the Entertainment Software Rating Board. It’s what parents turn to when they need to know if a game is okay for their kids—you know that little rating box on the back of the game with “T for Teen?” That comes from the ESRB.
The ESRB is a nonprofit, self-regulatory body established in 1994 after surveying parents and experts. The survey found that parents wanted age-based categories, but also content info. They wanted to choose for themselves whether a game was okay for their kids.
Virtually all video games sold in the U.S. and Canada are rated, even though rating is technically voluntary.
How does it work?
The ESRB administers a three-part system: Rating Categories, Content Descriptors, and Interactive Elements.
Ratings depend on two things: (1) how extreme the extreme content is, and (2) how often that extreme content occurs.
Content Descriptors look at the context of the game within the rating category assigned. This means that “Suggestive Themes” might be a tad bit more suggestive in a T for Teen game than an E10+ for Ages 10 and Up game.
“Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB” or “Users Interact” means that players might come into contact with other human beings. Assume that at least one or two of these other human beings might be malignant tumors who like to spout fountains of obscenities, and judge for yourself whether you want your child exposed to that.
“Shares Location” and “Shares Info” are used mostly for mobile games and apps.
Who rates games?
Three trained raters have to reach a consensus about each rating. Raters are adults who have experience working with kids but who may not have experience with gaming.
Raters do not typically play the games because the games are too long, there are too many permutations of gameplay, or the games are often glitchy, not having been fully debugged before submission.
Game companies are required to submit each instance of extreme content, briefs of typical game play, and any other pertinent information. If a company submits false info, the game will typically generate consumer inquires after release. At this point the ESRB will correct the rating. The company will then be subject to formal sanctions and penalties. It’s not in the best interests of companies to submit a false report.
Games that are available for digital download only–because they are becoming so numerous–may skip the in-person rating process. The company fills out an online questionnaire, and a rating will be assigned automatically based on responses. Unfortunately this means no one outside the company has a chance to review the content before the game is rated.
How well does it work?
A 2012 ESRB-commissioned survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research associates found that 85% of parents with gamer kids are aware of the rating system, while 70% regularly check the rating before buying games.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that parents are fully aware of how the system works or what an individual rating means. Game sellers frequently come into contact with parents who, although they’d hesitate to let their kids watch an R-rated movie, think it’s perfectly okay for their kids to play M-rated games.
The ESRB provides a mobile app with Rating Summaries to help parents navigate. A recent mystery shopper study conducted by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission found that retailers with in-store policies regarding the sale of M-rated games to kids under 17 enforced those policies 87% of the time. This is a higher rate of enforcement than any other rating system in the United States.
Over half of video games are rated E or E10+, but M-rated games have much bigger budgets for advertising and development, which makes it seem like they’re a higher percentage of the market. However, both in terms of game sales (above) and overall ratings assigned (below), a majority of video games are not in the M for Mature category.
What are the drawbacks?
Sexual content is rated much more harshly than violent content. Some argue that—for instance—an image of a woman’s bare breasts should not be given a higher rating than a human being’s head being blown to bits.
Raters don’t play the games. Although it’s rare that a company will provide false information about a game’s content, it’s difficult to assign a fair rating based only on a few gameplay elements. The situation is worse for the games that are rated by the new automated system.
Remember the tumors? Other players are arguably responsible for the most inappropriate content a child might face in any given game, regardless of its ESRB rating. The ESRB cannot regulate these in-game interactions.