In My book: Screw The ESRB

That’s right I said it: Screw the ESRB.

Seriously, will someone, please, remind me why we have this ratings system around in the first place? Someone, that is, who’s not Hillary Clinton, Joe Liberman, or any of the other Washington wackos that helped get this abortion of a good idea started in the first place.

The organization, formally known as the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, is, in my professional opinion, not only part of a system that stifles artistic expression and the first amendment, but also a fear-inspiring, media-whoring, bastard of a business – a business that I infer is also being used by some groups to try and impose specific ideas about morality, as well as what is and is not acceptable for the eyes and ears of certain groups of people in the American public – specifically children of and around a certain age.

I’m sure most, if not all, Americans and Canadians on this website are aware of what the ESRB is and what it claims to do; but for anyone that doesn’t know, the ESRB is a not-for-profit organization that rates video games in a similar way to the film and television rating councils. The way in which it does this is by first smacking every game given to them with one of six, general ratings; then it assigns specific color-commentary to each title by listing one or more ‘content descriptors’ underneath the general rating.

The six categories a video game can be indiscriminately dumped into are: ‘Early Childhood,’ ‘Everyone,’ ‘Everyone 10+,’ ‘Teen,’ ‘Mature,’ and ‘Adult Only.’ There is also ‘Rating Pending,’ and ‘Kids to Adults,’ but the first is never seen on final, shipped titles, and the second is rarely, if ever used, so I’ve chosen to leave them out for the main scope of this editorial.

Your Game's Life Depends on Letters. Not Quality of Product. Remember that.

Additionally, there are roughly 30 different ‘content descriptors,’ and they consist of amazingly vague and ludicrous adjective/noun combination’s such as: ‘Mature humor,’ ‘Cartoon violence,’ ‘Suggestive themes,’ and ‘Simulated gambling.’ Furthermore, any content descriptor can also be modified with the crystal-clear qualifier, ‘Mild’ – as in ‘Mild Mature humor.’

The ESRB clarifies on their website that ‘Mild,’ “is intended to convey low frequency, intensity or severity of the content it modifies.” Which means, in the case of ‘Mild Blood,’ the game could either include horrific blood loss that only appears a few times; blood loss that is slightly less than horrific but appears constantly; or just average, non-horrific blood loss – you know, the kind that doesn’t bring the word ‘severe’ to mind.

One of the most ridiculous content descriptors the ESRB uses, however, doesn’t contain the word ‘Mild,” and is instead the mind-boggling term, ‘Animated blood;’ which the ESRB describes as, “Discolored and/or unrealistic depictions of blood.”

Pro Tip: It’s a video game. It’s all ‘animated blood.’ There is no real blood to be found anywhere. Ever.

In order to get a rating for their title, game developers have to make a video tape of the content in their game that could be considered offensive or obscene and send it into the ESRB, along with extensive, written statements about content of that sort as well. The games themselves are rarely, if ever played by the raters in full – and in fact the ESRB notes that most titles are not played AT ALL before they receive a rating.


The rating that is assigned to the game is based off of these limited notes and video taped game play that gives no context or story whatsoever, and is done by three, anonymous raters from the state of New York. If the three raters all individually give a game the same rating then that is the rating given to it automatically; but if they do not reach a consensus on their own then additional raters are brought in to vote, and in that way majority rules.

The identities, jobs, and personal information of any kind regarding the raters is strictly confidential, according to the ESRB, so we, the public that ends up buying the games they rate, have no way of really knowing anything about the people who think such-and-such game is offensive or not.

And, honestly, if you don’t know the person judging something how can you trust their judgment? This is true in any area of life, not just with games. Would any of us be willing to trust an anonymous stranger who said certain kinds of food were good and others were poison? Wouldn’t we want to know if they’re a scientist, a doctor, or just some 19 year old, new age hippie that had a fetish for chickens?

Of course we would, because that type of fact could mean life or death. And while I’m not making the claim that video games are equally important, others, in fact, are. There are senators and politicians, as well as some extreme religious nuts, who make the claim that video games are just like food – in that they are things we and our children consume – and, they argue, the things we put into our minds and the minds of our children are guaranteed to be the things that will come out of us in turn. This is why ‘violent’ video games are blamed for everything from school shootings to sexual violence, drug use, sacrilegious activities, reality TV and Bigfoot appearances.

Some of the crazy, free speech hating lowlifes in both Washington and in extreme, conservative-minded organizations throughout the nation want nothing more than to have something or someone to blame when the shit hits the fan. And, the ESRB gives them a crutch to lean on when that feared day finally comes to pass, just so they’ll be able to say to the TV news cameras, “It’s not our fault! The parents bought the child a mature rated game! The store sold the child a game with adult content! It’s their fault, not ours!”

It's those damn, unregulated arcades! They taught my Billy to shoot guns! They also made him buy pink toys!

Moving on for a moment, now, I feel it’s necessary to mention that while attaining an ESRB Rating is not mandatory – at least not in a legal way – the consequences of not attaining a rating would make it almost literally impossible to sell you video game to anyone in the entire country.

The reason for this is the ESRB Ratings Council. This council is in actuality a collection of retailers such as Best Buy, Game Stop, Wal-Mart, Target, and Toys R’ Us that have all signed up and agreed to follow the codes and commandments of the ESRB. Each of these stores, as well as many others, are required by contract to do several things, such as: place ratings information in any area where video games are visible; coach, teach and train new and existing employees about the ratings system; and receive at least two audits a year. These audits consist of an ESRB volunteer attempting to buy a ‘Mature’ rated title, and verifying that each store’s employees at the point of sale asked for and checked a valid form of ID.

These really don’t seem to be too big a deal, and in fact most of them aren’t, but I do want to point out that the stores in this council, who do choose to follow the wishes of the ESRB, are contractually forced to waste valuable time training, teaching and enforcing opinionated ratings – when, instead, they could be focused on being better retail chains altogether, or at the very least not trying to be parental figures to everyone who appears to be under 30.

What’s more important to note, though, is that the stores that make up the ESRB Council account for the largest percentage of video game sales in the country, and as long as they are members they cannot sell a video game that has not been rated by the ESRB. This brings us back to the fact that it’s almost impossible to sell your game without first getting a rating smacked across the backside like a pimp backhanding a trick. To ignore the ESRB and just ship your game as-is would be the kiss of death to not only your title’s promotion and but any hope you had of turning a profit.

Internet sales have increasingly made the idea of ignoring the ESRB possible, but with the majority of games still being sold in brick-and-mortar retail outlets it’s not even close to being a realistic one. You either play nice, and accept their titan’s hold of the industry; or you choose not to pass Go, not to collect $200 dollars, and go straight to failed-game jail. It is Monopoly they’re playing, after all, and game developers and retailers have to play on their board with their rules.

What does this mean, then? It means, simply enough, that developers and game designers all across the world (not just in the USA, mind you) are forced to accept the idea that certain images, words, ideas, concepts and acts are either going to get them perma-banned from retail store shelves, or will have to be avoided altogether in order for them to have a financial chance at making something monetarily successful. This is so phenomenally retarded that it makes Greedo shooting first seem like the best idea since sex.

No business or organization should have the power and influence to essentially force everyone under its control or be at risk of going bankrupt and unheard of, simply for not complying to specific guidelines and codes of one, sole format. The ESRB constantly and continuously voices the idea that they are 100% voluntary, but there is nothing voluntary about the way in which they have basically made it illegal for stores to carry games that they do not approve of, or risk hefty fines and public scrutiny.

The failures that are clearly visible with the ESRB are also, partly, the fault of stupendously stupid retail chains that signed onto the documentation in the first place; but as much as the stores are to blame for being chicken-shit, it is infinitely more the ESRB that should be blamed because of the pressure they’re allowed to exert due to government backing, fear-mongering news reports, and false, often blatantly misrepresented facts.

Yes, even though the ESRB is not a government run agency, it does have government backing and support – not only by the senators and congressmen who support it, but also through the FCC and FTC agencies, as well. This is government money, aka our tax dollars, going towards researching, studying and upholding contractual obligations to a ratings board that is as pointless as it is a failure. Not to mention the millions of dollars in court cases alone that have been settled on by the ESRB, as well as the even more precious time judges, governors and other lawmakers have had to spend deciding on ESRB-related issues.

Judge Judy rules that the ESRB should GTFO

Don’t get me wrong though, I am glad that certain judges have gotten involved in the whole ESRB fail-train over the last few years – specifically the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which made the decision that video games are the same as film, art, and books and therefore should be protected under the 1st amendment of the Constitution. But, as great as this decision was it did nothing to stop the ESRB from having a vice grip on the way gaming developers have to edit, market and even design their content.

What do I mean?

Well, for starters, the gaming industry, just like the TV and film industries before it, has now gotten into the habitual habit of making games with certain ratings in mind. In other words, they are designing and approving content while the game is in pre-development that will push the game into one of the six general categories. After all, ‘Teen’ or ‘Mature’ rated titles make up 90% of the games that have sold over a million copies in the last five years, with sports games being the biggest exceptions.

Just as you can watch a DVD director’s cut version of a film and see what was taken out in order to get an ‘R’ rating down to a ‘PG-13,’ so you can also go into many, many games and find incomplete or ‘lost’ coding for material that was abandoned in order to get a marketable rating from the ESRB. In fact, ever since the “Hot Coffee” incident that arose out of abandoned coding being found in some copies of GTA: San Andreas the ESRB has forced developers to include information about any and all unfinished content that may be in the game which could contain offensive material. Now, they not only have to write out and tape what’s included in their games, but what WAS included at some point in the past.

Damn you, logic!

Secondly, the ESRB ratings make it impossible for children under the age of 17 or 18 to purchase a Mature or Adult Only title from most places in America, as I’ve already mentioned; but what I haven’t already said is that this, essentially, is saying that children under 17 years of age have limited free speech. This is not covered in the Bill of Rights, nor is any age restriction mentioned in any of the laws and court cases that have followed up on the first amendment’s power after the fact.

The truth is that free speech, unlike voting, drinking, smoking, gambling or renting a car, has no age restriction placed upon it – yet we’ve allowed our gaming, as well as our movie industries, to be chained down by ratings boards. Ratings boards that prevent people under a certain age from viewing and seeing things which have been proven time, and time again in court to be protected articles of free speech.

You may be saying that the freedom of speech does not include the freedom to view any and all content that is covered under its wing, but to that I’d just call you a damn fool. The greatest liberty we have under the first amendment is not the ability to speak and express ourselves freely, but rather to hear the voices and see the expressions of everyone else. After all, what is free speech to a man in the jungle who has no one to hear him? Freedom of speech’s power is wholly reliant on a free-to-listen audience that knows no age and cannot be fit into one of six, general categories.

The final thing I want to say, for now at least, is that the ESRB is being used to employ a certain idea of what is ‘right,’ ‘acceptable,’ and ‘good’ in this country, and too many of us are buying into it. We’re allowing strangers who we’ve never met before, and who haven’t even witnessed or sat down and experienced all of the content they’re judging for themselves, to tell us what they think is inside a game that could be offensive, traumatizing, or poisonous to our children’s minds.

Too many parents I know of are letting a simple, one letter rating sum up their buying decision without doing any research on their own or without taking things like “violence in context,” and “sexuality displayed through love” into consideration. All they see is a “Mature” rated game that contains blood, gore and nudity and they slam the game back onto the shelf and wonder why people are allowed to make such filth.

What’s worse are the parents that allow violence into their children’s games without so much as a second thought; yet they cringe and ban games that dare to show two people, in a loving relationship, have sex or get naked on screen. These parents believe that it’s better their children see two people killing one other instead of fucking one another…and to that I just facepalm and let out a heavy sigh.

Ultimately, though, it’s the parents, and all of us voters fault for allowing this type of thing to escalate to the place it currently reigns from. Parents have signed away their given rights to an organization which they probably know little or nothing about. We, as the general public, have allowed a minority of people — who live in fear of their children’s violent capabilities — to govern us all, and limit us all from experiencing games that are not roped and wrestled into specific holes.

We have let government officials tell us what our children should and shouldn’t be watching without them really knowing who our children are – without knowing them for the unique, special people we know them to be. We have let an industry tell us that a 16 year old isn’t ready to experience Call of Duty, but the next day when he turns 17 he’s suddenly mature enough to handle the content just fine. We have tried to pass off the responsibility of being good, caring parents – parents who are concerned with what our kids put into their heads – and given the rights to our future generation’s content over to a non-for-profit organization that doesn’t know dick about shit.

Not only is all of this true, but we’re also hurting the gaming industry itself by allowing the ESRB to continue having the power it does, where it’s able to stop, control or cut content from being designed by gaming developers who just want to tell the best possible stories out there. The ESRB is currently allowed to tell a company, in so many words, that if they want to have a future and ever design a game that will sell to the masses that they have to fall in line, stand up straight, and avoid overly realistic or grotesque visual depictions of sex and violence – no matter what the context may be. We’re limiting ourselves in the process from experiencing non-whitewashed, gritty and real stories in our video games, and that, to me, is unacceptable more than anything else.

Ok, so take out the axe and give him a bunny. Make it purple. Also he's now a unicorn.

Even if people will not stand up and say, “ok, I’ll start being a responsible parent that monitors my child’s gaming habits,” there has to be those who will, if nothing else, stand up and say that they – that we all – will not be limited to just viewing certain content, nor limited to only having certain content made readily available to us. We cannot allow others, who are not known to us, personally, to say they know what’s best for us to hear and see; because when it comes to issues of free speech, no one can or does know what’s best for us, except us.

Do your thoughts words fall into six neatly organized categories? Can your day dreams and fantasies be described with 30 content descriptors? Can your wishes and ambitions be labeled and summed up with a sticker on your back?

No, of course not. And if our own dreams, words, thoughts, and fantasies cannot be fit and labeled so neatly why and how can we assume that others will?

If the ESRB wants to stick around, that’s fine by me; but only as long as it does so as a gimped and powerless version of its current self – without any legal right to fine, punish or impede the creative efforts of anyone in the gaming industry, or the retail chains that currently accept its ruling. If it wants to be a purely optional company then take away all the power it has to force companies to adhere to its wishes, its codes and its ratings. Have it do independent research about a game’s content by actually PLAYING through a game and deciding the rating based on a well informed decision – not some knee-jerk reaction to a video tape that included some blood and gore depictions, or some sexual content involving aliens and a bad-ass space soldier.

The book industry has managed to do just fine without a ratings system in place whatsoever for the past few hundred years in this country, so why do we think that video games will corrupt and murder everyone in sight without one? I mean, a child as young as 11 can go into a book store and, with no issue whatsoever, purchase a copy of Catcher in the Rye, or Lolita; yet everyone in the media seems to go Sarah Palin’s version of bat-shit crazy if a kid purchases God of War 3.

Note: In a book this would be cool. It's the pixels that make it sin.

Recently, major comic labels like Marvel have stopped using the optional comics code ratings system for their books and chose to use systems of their own designs that better illustrated what content was included and if they thought people or children should think twice before reading. This is a wonderful idea for developers to adapt if the country simply will not tolerate a no-ratings system, like those crazy paper-backed books at Barnes & Nobel are able to get away with. Let’s let the people who design the games, and who are thus most familiar with them, from the start to the finished product, say what they think about the game, and what you, or your children should be aware of before a play-thru.

There are dozens of options out there – all of them better than the current system we have in place – and all of them are up and available for discussion. What it will take for a change to occur, though, is for the parents and voters to come together and admit that the system we have in place isn’t working, has never worked, and will never work as long as it’s aim is to make the gaming industry and retailers responsible for the content that we and our children see. It’s not game companies or retail stores’ jobs to be responsible to our children…it’s ours and ours alone.

The ESRB was created by people who wanted someone to blame, when instead those people should have just blamed themselves, had a cup of STFU, and gone on with their lives – trying to be better parents and concerned citizens in the process.

Drink up.

It’s not too late to remedy that mistake. Responsibility is always willing to be taken back by those who want it, after all. The question is: Do the parents, voters and lawmakers in this country want it badly enough? Do we want to get back the power to govern ourselves and our families when it comes to what content we make, buy and rent, regardless of the format?

I hope so…and I hope you think so, too.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • I agree. The only thing I would say would still need to be on a game is an age ‘suggestion’ (for lack of a better word). I mean if you have a small child that you let play games you don’t want to get something for them that they just won’t understand because the logic is too adult. Kind of like you see on some toys or board games.

  • Greg

    Suggesting that not allowing a child to purchase an M rated video game is denying them free speech, is totally incorrect. The bill of rights provides for us to express ourselves in our words. It doesn’t provide for unlimited expression, by anyone in any format. Buying a video game, or a comic book or a porn mag, are not forms of protected free speech.

    The Bill or Rights does provide us the opportunity to discuss these issues in our own words, playing a game isn’t free speech.

    There’s not a law in the land that would keep a child’s parent from purchasing an M rated game and giving it to their kid. Most kids do just this. There is no lack of 12 year old’s on COD MW2.

    Lastly, ask yourself, would you prefer that a self regulating authority like the ESRB rate our games or would you prefer that some nebulous government agency do it instead? Don’t get me wrong, the ESRB is full of suck, but it’s the least suck given all the possible alternatives. And, for what little it’s worth, it does serve as some form of guide for parents who actually do “parent” their children.

    To me is a bit like reading a game or movie review. I often disagree with the reviews and the reviewers. I often find myself ranting (sometimes to myself) about the qualifications of a professional reviewer. In the end, it’s our choice whether or not to buy, based on crappy reviews+lame rating systems/biased advertising.

  • Guest

    I’m afraid I have to totally disagree with this extremely knee-jerk article. As a pro-gamer trained in child psychology, ratings are extremely important. At different stages in a child’s psychological development, they’re more susceptible to different inputs. This is why when a young child is abused, they usually become abusers, while an adult being abused doesn’t.

    There is no link to prove violent or anti-social games has any affect on adults, but there is a clear link to the desensitisation of children. This doesn’t mean they’ll become violent, but react less to acts of violence. It’s my firm belief that an adult should have access to what they like (within reason, of course), but children should be protected.

    To that effect, I believe the British BBFC in Britain is far superior to the ESRB as it’s legally binding (i.e. a minor cannot buy a game above their age rating; it’s the parent’s choice as to whether they play the game).

    You argue that the concept of certain images being morally wrong is ludicrous. While philosophically I tend to agree that morals are the product of society, they’re also necessary. If you are looking for an interesting read on morality, you should study Durkheim, who stated that morals can change through society’s education, but created a sort of rallying point for society to gain an identity (he said similar things about religion). Current standards of morals are acceptable to the western society, while other things are faux-pas. For example, are you claiming the KKK are as moral as the charity worker? In a different society, perhaps. In the west? No.

    You argue that an independent body receiving government funding makes it government run. Using this logic, any of the arts (including video games) which receives a grant from the US government is instantly government run. How about companies receiving small-business grants? Those tax dollars don’t make them any less private.

    You also claim that the ESRB is a scapegoat. However, that makes little to no sense. Surely, if they wanted a scapegoat they would make the ESRB binding and then they would have the solid scapegoat of bad parenting compared to the strawman of a system that has no real power or control.

    Video games that have been designed for adults should be available for adults, just like adult films and ‘adult’ films. It should also be accepted that the mind develops. For example, if I heard an adult make a fart joke (curse you, Radio 1), then I’m shocked at their lack of maturity. If I hear a teenager make the same joke, it’s fine. In the society we reside in, different things are acceptable for different people, and the psychological development of humans supports this.

    However, I will concede the point of the 30 qualifiers. I believe that once a game receives a rating, it would be best for the developers themselves to say “Yeah, we made a game for adults. What part of the game contains adult themes?” This way, they create better, more honest, descriptions of work than the ESRB could. That said, having an external body to actually rate the body of work is very useful; an ‘outside’ perspective, as developers are usually very attached and could be too close to the project.

    You say there are dozens of options and list none, yet say they’re ALL better. How about fitting M games with an elaborate bomb so only those that show intelligence can play it (or survive, for that matter)? It’s an option, and clearly a far worse one. This is an example of the hyperbole used throughout the article.

    You say it’s the parents responsibility, and I agree. But just because a parent doesn’t want to be responsible (as, sadly, happens often) shouldn’t mean we leave children to the wolves. If a parent won’t take responsibility, who will? Clearly, the answer has to be society as a body.

    Sorry for the long reply, but this is a topic I have written on, read about, and studied. It’s very close to my heart.

  • An