Does the ESRB Do Any Good?


By Eric Ashley (@flapjackashley)
The video game ratings system known as the ESRB celebrated its 22nd anniversary recently and It is hard to imagine a time when video games had no ratings for content for parents or shoppers alike. Can you imagine a world when a game like Grand Theft Auto V could be sold any little kid with cash in hand or bought by lazy parents who didn’t want to be bothered to research games but would be the first to march the game back to the store for its content?
ESRB stands for Entertainment Software Ratings Board. And much like the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), it screens releases for content and gives a “recommendation” as to what age range it would be appropriate for. And like the MPAA, the ESRB has been accused of grading some games too lightly/harshly, and just being a form of censorship, constricting artistic vision. It’s not as bad as if a mainstream major studio movie gets an X rating (which, contrary to popular belief, is not a rating for “adult” films, but means no one under 17 would be permitted no matter what – horror movies traditionally have to be edited down to get an R rating because of gore or violence) because that rating means most theaters won’t show your movie and its chances of financial success are slim to none. But an M rating for a game – or a seldom-used AO (Adults Only) rating – could be the kiss of death for a game seeking mass appeal since more and more states check IDs and treat an ESRB rating just like an MPAA rating. It’s been around 20 years and shows no signs of going away, for better or worse.
But how did it start?
Back in 1992, two games came out an upset the apple cart of friendship. The gory popular fighter Mortal Kombat, with its spine ripping, skull crushing “fatalities”, was a leading cause that most people are familiar with. In the Great 16-bit Console Wars, Nintendo made a misstep due to having no ratings code by selling an edited, bloodless port on Super NES while the Sega Genesis featured all the blood via a not so secret code. But a Sega CD full-motion-video (FMV) game named Night Trap is most notorious.
Having gone unnoticed in its initial batch of copies, it raised some eyebrows with its use of FMV, which, at the time, was new technology in games that went away from game animation and became interactive movies with real actors and effects. With a storyline centering around a host of masked men going around and drilling the blood out of the necks of slumber party girls and into wine bottles, the plot of Night Trap was far more sinister than the actual execution – which was pure B-movie drivel. But the plot and a couple excerpts of video footage was enough for Congress to step and attempt to ban the game. Of course, this clunker flew off the shelves at that point because once you tell kids they can’t do something, they want to do it more. But with the increased popularity and controversy, came the heat on what to do to prevent little impressionable minds from such devil content.
Nintendo and Sega were also involved in bitter hearings on Capitol Hill due to these violent games. Because Sega was feeling the blunt of Big Brother, they incorporated a short-lived, self imposed ratings code on their releases, and competing 3DO did the same. But soon in an effort have something across-the-board and avoid full fledged federal intrusion, an independent board was formed and all game companies quickly got on board. With a system that indeed mirrored the MPAA with ratings of games being suitable for Everyone (E), Teen (T) or Mature (M), the ESRB was launched on September 1, 1994, and has been here ever since.
Does the ESRB do any good? Some would say yes, although I don’t think I need anyone to tell me that a Call of Duty game has gun violence or a Mario game has animated mischief. In fact, what is animated mischief? And some rating and descriptions are so detailed that they are unintentionally hilarious – the content description for Sega’s Madworld for Wii, really? While there may be some hints at favoritism or censorship, anything that keeps Congress out of my video games is a good thing, which is what would have happened if the ESRB had not been created – because that would have been much worse. Do you think Congress would have been keen on a GTA game? It is a part of a necessary evil… I don’t welcome it with open arms, but it is better than what could have been.

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