Note, December 8 2004: This was originally written for diabloii.net in 1998. I was 13. *cough*

Acronym for the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. Rates video games (PC/Mac/Console).

Who's Rating Our Games?

Have you noticed those omni-present black and white logos stamped in the corner of computer game boxes? Things like ''E'' for everyone, ''T'' for teen, ''M'' for mature, or ''A'' for adult? Ever wonder who appoints those ratings?

...definitely not gamers...

The ESRB

The ESRB <http://www.esrb.com> (or Entertainment Software Ratings Board) is an ''independent board that has, with the support of the industry, developed a standardized rating system for interactive entertainment software products.'' This rating system determines which games are suitable for which age groups, and, in theory, assists parents in filtering out games they might consider inappropriate for their children.

Generally, the public pays very little heed to these ratings, and they usually hold no meaning except to the parent who shops for his or her child at Comp USA. However, as more and more mainstream companies begin accepting the ESRB's word as law, gamers are beginning to ask the question: What authority do these people have?

How do these games receive these ratings? Who designated them? These are questions I hope to answer. After reading this, you will have a clear idea of how the ESRB works, how it affects you, and the controversy behind it.

What is the ESRB?

Founded in late 1994, the ESRB has rated literally thousands of products. It’s not just some organization throwing out ideals and morals, but a large company, well established in (or, rather, above) the gaming industry. Headed by a board of advisors from prominent organizations, backed by the government, educational industries, and supported by various corporations, the ESRB has a strong base, and will not be going away.

Through a seemingly comprehensive system, they assign entertainment software ratings based upon offensive material, and despite the fact that their ratings are only meant to be recommendations for parents and other public responsibles, such as librarians, many stores have started accepting these ratings as law. Gaming companies are now putting strict rules on free copies, demos, and betas of their games given out to the public - all based upon ESRB ratings.

Who is rating the games?

Basically, your average Joe. Almost anyone can rate for the ESRB, whether they've ever played a computer game in their life, or not.

To obtain eligibility to rate a game under the ESRB label, an individual must undergo extensive training, involving a wide variety of entertainment software, before becoming certified. Supposedly, upon passing this game-experience training, the individual is deemed fit to judge what is acceptable and unacceptable for the designated age groups in America; with this ability, they are queued with 100 other raters.

From this pool of raters, three are randomly chosen to judge each game. ''Raters include retired school principals, parents, professionals, and other individuals from all walks of life.'' This is a group of non-gamers. Outsiders, some might say. Despite this, they are respected by various government and educational groups, and, because of this, are given virtually free reign to decide what games thousands of people should or should not play.

How do they rate the games?

Instead of actually playing the game in order to get product information, rating is done entirely through watching video tapes of gameplay footage. The representatives assign a rating without ever meeting one another, or playing the game.

Many will argue that this is not the way to judge what is appropriate for children and youths, but this system has been embraced by America. It was presented to Congress in 1994 and received enormous support, especially from right wing suporters. However, in all the appraisals mentioned, not one came from any specific person or group in the gaming industry.

Who runs the ESRB?

The ESRB is not run by any specific person. However, a board of advisors, the Academic and Consumer Advisory Board (ACAB), do make the major decisions, meeting periodically to make sure that the system is working correctly, and fixing it if it isn’t.

The ACAB is comprised of several individuals with vocations in education, including professors (with doctorates usually in Psychology), school principals, and also several directors of various organizations and school councils, all concerned with the protection of America’s youth. You do not see any gaming industry icons listed here; Disciplinarians seem to be the preferred type.

This board is responsible for establishing the correct demographic of a rater, as well maintenance of the rating system. It has the power of deciding what is right and wrong for thousands of people; choosing individuals with barely any background involving computer games (aside from their ''training''), and giving them the ability to govern what games are appropriate to what age group, without ever playing them.

What authority do these people have?

Some may ask, ''What makes the ESRB so special that companies allow them to rate their games? Why don't they just ignore them?'' The fact of the matter is, these ratings are key marketing tools. Entertainment software companies will go that extra mile, removing gore, sexual references, cursing, and other offensive material, in order to gain a larger market by getting that lower age-bracket.

The ESRB is in a very good position, as they have support from numerous, extremely notable organizations. They have a virtual monopoly in their trade, and are simply thought of as a ''can't-live-without'' company by many outside parties, unaffiliated with the gaming industry.

How does this affect gamers?

You, as a gamer, are also influenced by the ESRB's ratings. You will not be getting demos/betas from software companies who enforce the ESRB scale (a number that is growing) if you do not meet the age requirement. You will not be able to buy high-rated games (i.e. ''A'' or ''M'') in ESRB-enforced stores - unless you are with a parent. Three people, who have never played the games and have virtually no background in gaming, have made this decision. It's considered final.


On to part 2: The Controversy

Discussions of the morality or implications of the rating system aside, the fact is that it's here to stay. Bear in mind, however, that the ESRB's rating system is entirely voluntary. While support for it is nearly ubiquitous (a full list of participating companies is available at http://www.esrb.org/esrb_part_comp.asp), no company faces censure for ignoring it entirely. That said, always handy is a quick-reference guide to interpreting the ESRB's ratings.

The ESRB's reach extends only to North America. There is a similar organization in the UK, however, known as ELSPA.

Each rating has a simple black-and-white logo, displayed on the cover of any rated game, as well as in any promotional material. The logos are actually fairly attractive, especially compared to the Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics label or the various movie ratings labels.

Of special note is the fact that the ESRB strongly encourages adding the name of the rating to the name attribute of the <img> tag when the logo is used in promotional web pages, so that the actual name of the rating will pop up as a "tool tip".

These ratings are:

  • EC - Early Childhood - Rarely used, this is completely innocent content, appropriate for ages three and under. Generally, this is limited to edutainment titles aimed at very young children, as even cartoon violence or comic mischief will exclude a game from this rating.

  • E - Everyone - These are appropriate for all players ages six and up. Minor cartoon violence or comic mischief is allowed, but any graphic violence, blood, profanity, or adult themes will disqualify a game for this rating.

  • K-A - Kids to Adults - Retired on January 1, 1998, this rating was replaced by E, and had nearly the same description. (Different wording, same meaning.)

  • T - Teen - Aimed at players ages 13 and up, the difference between this category and M is largely a matter of degree. A T game may have graphic violence, sexually suggestive themes (althought not nudity), and blood, although more severe examples will be rated M.

  • M - Mature - M games, aimed at players ages 17 and up, are to date the only rating enforced by retailers. (And even then, not universally.) Nudity will always fit a game into this rating or higher, and intense graphic violence or highly suggestive themes will earn a game this rating.

  • AO - Adults Only - Pornography. Only graphic depictions of sexual acts can earn a game this rating, as no game to date has even come close to recieving this rating for violence (and, likely, no game will.) The refinement of this standard comes from the controversy over BMX XXX, where the ESRB stated that nudity will only earn a game an M rating. As of this noding, no game has recieved an AO rating, largely due to the fact that many major retailers have stated that they would not carry any AO games.

  • RP - Rating Pending - Unlike the others, you'll never see this rating on a game's packaging, generally only on demos or advertising. This simply states that the final version of the game has yet to be delivered to the ESRB for rating.



The ESRB also submits the reasons that a game recieves a rating, in the form of standardized descriptors. Generally, this information can be found on the back of the game's packaging, in a small black and white box.

Unlike the above descriptions of the ratings, this information about the descriptors is taken verbatim from the ESRB's site at esrb.org, as no interpretation is needed and these are the canonical definitions.

  • Animated Blood - Cartoon or pixelated depictions of blood.

  • Blood - Depictions of blood.

  • Blood and Gore - Depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts.

  • Comic Mischief - Scenes depicting slapstick or gross vulgar humor.

  • Edutainment - Content of product provides user with specific skills development or reinforcement learning within an entertainment setting. Skill development is an integral part of product.

  • Gambling - Betting like behavior.

  • Informational - Overall content of product contains data, facts, resource information, reference materials or instructional text.

  • Mature Sexual Themes - Provocative material, possibly including partial nudity.

  • Mild Language - Mild references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol, or drug use.

  • Mild Lyrics - Mild references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol, or drug use.

  • Mild Violence - Mild scenes depicting characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.

  • Nudity - Graphic or prolonged depictions of nudity.

  • Partial Nudity - Brief and mild depictions of nudity.

  • Some Adult Assistance May Be Needed - Early Childhood Descriptor only.

  • Strong Language - Profanity and explicit references to sexuality, violence, alcohol, or drug use.

  • Strong Lyrics - Profanity and explicit references to sex, violence, alcohol, or drug use in music.

  • Strong Sexual Content - Graphic depiction of sexual behavior, possibly including nudity.

  • Suggestive Themes - Mild provocative references or materials.

  • Use of Drugs - Use of drugs in a manner that condones or glorifies their use.

  • Use of Tobacco and/or Use of Alcohol - Use of tobacco and/or alcohol in a manner that condones or glorifies their use.

  • Violence - Scenes involving aggressive conflict.

The ESRB also has some discontinued descriptors, although some games may still use them, owing to older ratings.

  • Gaming - Betting-like behavior.

  • Mild Animated Violence - Mild cartoon or pixilated scenes depicting animated characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.

  • Mild Realistic Violence - Mild photographic-like detailed depictions of characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.

  • Animated Violence - Cartoon or pixilated scenes depicting animated characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.

  • Realistic Violence - Photographic-like detailed depictions of characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.

  • Animated Blood and Gore - Cartoon or pixilated images of blood or the mutilation of body parts.

  • Realistic Blood and Gore - Photographic-like detailed depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts.

  • Realistic Blood - Photographic-like detailed depictions of blood.

  • Reading Skills, Fine Motor Skills, Higher-Level Thinking Skills - These phrases are found only on products rated Early Childhood and indicate whether children's reading, computer, or other skills are used in these titles.



See also: Interactive Digital Software Association v. St. Louis County, Missouri, video games are not speech, movie ratings, Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics, Burstyn v. Wilson.

Sources: esrb.org, gamespot.com, gamers.com

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