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In North America—Canada, Mexico and The United States—video game ratings are assigned by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). The ESRB is a “non-profit, self-regulatory body” that was formed in 1994 through a coalition between major video game developers and publishers at the time (Acclaim Entertainment, Electronic Arts, Nintendo and Sega). Here is a rundown of how the ESRB came into existence and how the ratings system works.

History Of The ESRB

The threat of stringent federal regulations, brought about by concerns over more life-like and violent games (Mortal Kombat is oft cited as a catalyst for the federal government’s scrutiny), was looming over publishers and may have hampered their ability to create. In response, these entities proposed a method of rating their games so that parents purchasing games could make “informed decisions” based on their “age-appropriateness, content and interactive elements,” leading to the formation of the ESRB and its initial ratings system:

  • Early Childhood (eC): Suitable for ages 3 and over, usually educational in nature.
  • Kids to Adults (K-A): May be unsuitable for players under 6.
  • Teen (T): May be unsuitable for players under 13.
  • Mature (M): May be unsuitable for players under 17.
  • Adults Only (AO): Content considered unsuitable for minors.

This early ESRB proposal was enough to satisfy regulators and stave off federal involvement in the video game ratings system. While there are no laws strictly enforcing the ESRB ratings (in spite of attempts to create them), developers and publishers have adhered to the system since its creation, and, according to the ESRB FAQ, “virtually all video games that are sold at retail or downloaded to a game system in the U.S. and Canada are rated by the ESRB.”

Most retailers will not stock games that have not been rated by the ESRB, and most console gaming companies require that any games published on their platforms are ESRB rated, increasing the efficacy and trustworthiness of the ratings system as a whole. Furthermore, publishers of any physical copies of games are bound by contract to follow these industry guidelines.

How Ratings Work Now

The ratings system has evolved slightly since its inception, but is largely the same, save for the addition of categories like “Everyone (E)” and “Everyone 10+ (E10+).” Ratings are administered using a “three-part system” that provides information to consumers about Rating Categories, Content Descriptors, and Interactive Elements.

These ratings are based on “pertinent content” contained within a particular game, with attention given to the “most extreme content,” described by the ESRB as: “violence, language, sexuality, gambling and alcohol, tobacco and drug references.” The content within a game is balanced against context provided within the game, along as the frequency at which it appears.

Interestingly, the ESRB does not have their raters play the games that they rate during the ratings process. Instead, they require publishers to submit long-form questionnaires describing the content contained in their games. ESRB raters will evaluate these to determine a game’s rating, and, additionally, will play-test games post-release to verify the accuracy of the information provided to them by publishers (a complete look at the ratings process can be viewed here).

The ESRB defends this decision as a matter of efficiency. There are thousands of games released yearly, many with play times that exceed fifty hours. Requiring their rating teams to complete each individually would slow the process to the point where it would be ineffective.

And, for the most part, the ratings system works. According to research performed by Iowa State University, as long as parents are proactive in understanding how the ratings system operates and adopt the proper attitude, they can ensure their children are playing age-appropriate games, as intended.

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