Entertainment Software Rating Board

Entertainment Software Rating Board
Entertainment Software Rating Board
Type Non-profit, self-regulatory
Industry Organization and rating system
Predecessor 3DO Rating System
Recreational Software Advisory Council
Videogame Rating Council
Founded 1994[1] in Canada and United States
Headquarters New York City, New York, USA
Area served Canada
United States
Key people Patricia Vance
Website http://www.esrb.org/

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is a self-regulatory organization that assigns age and content ratings, enforces industry-adopted advertising guidelines, and ensures responsible online privacy principles for computer and video games as well as entertainment software in Canada, Mexico and the United States.[2] They were established in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association (formerly Interactive Digital Software Association), due to violent content found in video games such as Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, Lethal Enforcers, and Doom, and other controversial video games portraying overly violent or intense sexual situations and assigns ratings to games based on their content, similar to the motion picture rating systems used in many countries. Their aim is to aid consumers in determining a game's content and suitability. A game's rating is displayed on its box, the media, in advertisements and on the game's website(s).[1] By late 2009, it had assigned nearly 19,130 ratings to titles submitted by more than 350 publishers.

Although the rating system is technically voluntary, nearly all video games are submitted for rating. Many retail stores prohibit the sale of unrated video games and the major console manufacturers will not license games for their systems unless they carry ESRB ratings.



The symbols ESRB uses are stylized alphabetical letters meant to indicate the game's suitability.

Unrestricted ratings

Abbreviation Rating Active since Description Age suitable
ESRB Early Childhood.svg Early Childhood (EC) 1994 Games with this rating contain no material that adults would find inappropriate[3]. This content is very mild in impact. Games that fall under this rating are specifically intended for young children and are usually educational. 3 to 5
ESRB Everyone.svg Everyone (E) 1997 Games in this category may contain no or minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence. This content is mild in impact. This rating replaced K-A in 1997. 6 and over
ESRB Everyone 10+.svg Everyone 10+ (E10+) Late 2004 Contains content that might be considered suitable for children 10 years of age and up. This content is moderate in impact. Games in this category may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy, violence, language, animated blood and/or minimal suggestive themes. The ESRB distributed this rating on October 1, 2004 10 and over
ESRB Teen.svg Teen (T) 1994 Contains content that may be suitable for people 13 and older. However, it is not required that people under 13 must be accompanied by an adult to buy these games. This content is moderate to strong in impact. Titles in this category may contain more intense violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, low to no blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language. 13 and over

Restricted ratings

Abbreviation Rating Active since Description Age Suitable
ESRB Mature 17+.svg Mature (M) 1994 Titles in this category may contain more blood and gore than the Teen rating would accommodate, sexual themes/content/references and vulgar language[4]. This content is strong in impact. Many retailers (like Target, Future Shop, GameStop, Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, and Best Buy) have a policy of not selling games with this rating to people under 17, at least without parental approval. 17 and over
ESRB Adults Only 18+.svg Adults Only (AO) 1994 Contains content that is considered unsuitable for people under 18 years of age, and cannot be bought by anyone below that age. These may include adult video games that show sex and graphic nudity, extreme violence and blood and gore. As of 2010, there have been twenty-three products that have received and kept the rating. The content is very strong in impact. The AO rating is the subject of ongoing, heated controversy due to the extreme restrictions it places on game sales. Games from major publishers that receive an AO rating are often 'toned down' in order to gain the lesser rating of M. Companies like Microsoft,[5] Sony and Nintendo[6] all have policies not allowing AO rated games to be licensed on their consoles. Additionally, most major retailers, including the ones mentioned above, have similar policies that forbids AO rated titles to be carried on store shelves and online. This consequently restricts AO rated games to the PC and Mac, and being sold in limited fashion. 18 and over

Other ratings

Abbreviation Rating Active since Description


Rating Pending (RP) 1994 First symbol is only for use in advertising and marketing materials. Second symbol indicates product(s) has been submitted to the ESRB and is awaiting final rating(s). However, once rated, all pre-release advertising must contain the game's official ESRB rating. Some games, depending on the intensity of their content, may also prompt the use of the disclaimer, "May contain content inappropriate for children." It will only be one rating like Everyone and Mature. The true rating of an upcoming game will be unknown until the actual release of the game takes place. The true content is either unknown or extreme in impact.

Former ratings

Abbreviation Rating Active Description Age suitable
ESRB - K-Av2.svg Kids to Adults (K-A) 1994–1997 These titles will appeal to people of many ages and tastes. Titles in this category may contain minimal violence, some comic mischief (i.e. slapstick and gross-out comedy), or some crude language. This rating got replaced in the year 1997 by the E rating, which replaced all previously rated games that were Kids to Adults. 6 and over

Content descriptors

The 30 content descriptors consist of:

  • Alcohol Reference - Reference to and/or images of alcoholic beverages
  • Animated Blood - Discolored and/or unrealistic depictions of blood
  • Blood - Depictions of blood
  • Blood and Gore - Depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts
  • Cartoon Violence - Violent actions involving cartoon-like situations and characters. May include violence where a character is unharmed after the action has been inflicted
  • Comic Mischief - Depictions or dialogue involving slapstick or suggestive humor
  • Crude Humor - Depictions or dialogue involving vulgar antics, including “bathroom” humor
  • Drug Reference - Reference to and/or images of illegal drugs
  • Fantasy Violence - Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or non-human characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life
  • Intense Violence - Graphic and realistic-looking depictions of physical conflict. May involve extreme and/or realistic blood, gore, weapons and depictions of human injury and death
  • Mild Language - Mild to moderate use of profanity
  • Mild Lyrics - Mild references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol or drug use in music
  • Mature Humor - Depictions or dialogue involving "adult" humor, including sexual references
  • Nudity - Graphic or prolonged depictions of nudity
  • Partial Nudity - Brief and/or mild depictions of nudity
  • Real Gambling - Player can gamble, including betting or wagering real cash or currency
  • Sexual Content - Non-explicit depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including partial nudity
  • Sexual Themes - Verbal references to sex or sexuality
  • Sexual Violence - Depictions of rape or other violent sexual acts
  • Simulated Gambling - Player can gamble without betting or wagering real cash or currency
  • Strong Language - Explicit and/or frequent use of profanity
  • Strong Lyrics - Explicit and/or frequent references to profanity, sex, violence, alcohol or drug use in music
  • Strong Sexual Content - Explicit and/or frequent depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including nudity
  • Suggestive Themes - Mild provocative references or materials
  • Tobacco Reference - Reference to and/or images of tobacco products
  • Use of Drugs - The consumption or use of illegal drugs
  • Use of Alcohol - The consumption of alcoholic beverages
  • Use of Tobacco - The consumption of tobacco products
  • Violence - Scenes involving aggressive conflict. May contain bloodless dismemberment
  • Violent References - References to violent acts

Rating process

To obtain a rating for a game, a publisher sends the ESRB videotaped footage of the most graphic and extreme content found in the game. The publisher also fills out a questionnaire describing the game's content and pays a fee based on the game's development cost:[7]

  • $800 fee for development costs under US$250k
  • $4,000 fee for development costs over $250k

On its website, the ESRB states that three trained raters, working independently, watch the footage and recommend a rating. If all raters agree on the rating, content descriptors are added and the ESRB notifies the publisher of its decision. If there is no consensus, additional raters review the footage and materials, or the majority opinion rules. After the rating is agreed upon, the ESRB in-house personnel review the footage and all materials to ensure that all information is accurate and a certificate is sent to the publisher. However, that decision is not final. If the publisher wishes, they may edit the game and resubmit the footage and questionnaire in order to achieve a lower rating, or appeal the information to a committee made up of entertainment software industry representatives. If this is the case, the process begins anew.

When the game is ready for release, the publisher sends copies of the final version of the game to the ESRB. The game packaging is reviewed, and the ESRB says that its in-house personnel randomly play games to ensure that all the information provided during the rating process was complete and accurate. Penalties may apply to the publisher if it is eventually found, either through the in-house personnel's playing or consumer comments that the game's content is more extreme than the publisher stated in its application.

The identities of the ESRB raters are kept confidential and selected randomly from a pool of full-time ESRB employees who live in the New York City area. According to an ESRB introductory brochure from 1994: "The raters represent a wide range of backgrounds, races, and ages and have no ties to the interactive entertainment industry. Raters include retired school principals, parents, professionals, and other individuals from all walks of life." Raters are supposed to review games as if they were the customer and receiving their first glance at the game. They are then required to take testing before becoming ESRB raters.[8]

Background and history

As video-gaming progressed into the 16-bit era, graphics and sound capabilities were dramatically increased. Blood and gore were much clearer and vibrant than in 8-bit games. For example blood in an 8-bit game may look blocky and pixelated while in 16-bit it can be a fluid graphic that can easily be identified. After the release of games such as Mortal Kombat, Doom, Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers, there was much controversy over video game content. Hearings on video game violence and the corruption of society, headed by Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl were held in late 1992 to 1993. The result of the hearings was that the entertainment software industry was given one year to form a working rating system or the federal government would intervene and create its own system. Around this time, the Videogame Rating Council (VRC) was formed by Sega of America to rate mostly its own games. In 1993, the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) was formed. Also in 1993, the 3DO Company formed their own rating system for games released on the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer called the 3DO Rating System. In 1994, the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) was formed by the Software Publishers Association.[9] On July 29, 1994 the proposal from the IDSA for a rating system, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was presented in Congress[10] and approved[10]. In September 1994, the ESRB was established and became the de facto rater of video games in the United States.[11] At this time, many companies who produced computer games such as LucasArts, Sierra On-Line and 3D Realms continued to follow the RSAC system as they were members of the SPA. Eventually, all companies, including 3DO, agreed to follow the ESRB ratings.

Initially, there were five different ratings: Early Childhood, Kids to Adults, Teen, Mature and Adults Only. Shortly thereafter, the Informational and Edutainment descriptors were added. In 1996, the rating icons were altered so that it would be more clear who rated the product (this can be seen in the image of the Mature icon above). On January 1, 1998, the Kids to Adults rating was replaced with Everyone. Also in 1998, the Entertainment Software Rating Board Interactive (ESRBi) was formed, which rated web sites and online games. In late 1999, in order to make the rating symbols more legible, the pixelated rating icons were replaced with black and white icons. Beginning in early 2001, and continuing for the next couple of years, several of the content descriptors were retired and replaced. Content descriptors with "Animated" or "Realistic" in them had those portions removed. Also, the "Skills" descriptors used for the Early Childhood rating were removed as well. A short time later, the Gaming descriptor was changed to Gambling, which itself was split into Real and Simulated Gambling in the following years.[12]

In mid 2003, the ESRBi was closed down. On June 26, 2003, the content descriptors were made larger and more legible and newer, more thorough descriptors for violence (Cartoon, Fantasy, Intense) were added as well as a descriptor for Mature Humor. Also, the Mature and Adults Only icons had a 17+ and 18+ added to their title band in order to clearly signify the age appropriateness. On March 2, 2005, after conferring with academicians and child development experts, the Everyone 10+ rating was introduced.[13] Originally, raters were hired on a part-time basis; as of April 2007, the ESRB employs raters full-time.[14]

Criticism and controversy

Violence and the AO rating

The ESRB has often been accused of not rating games harshly enough for violence and other related themes. Games such as Harvester, Manhunt, Rise of the Triad, Mortal Kombat, and Soldier of Fortune have shown gruesome violence, yet received the M rating. Many critics have claimed that these games deserve the AO rating[15] and were given the M for commercial reasons.[16] Rise of the Triad in particular, received the highest violence descriptor: "Wanton and gratuitous violence" from the RSAC, which was mitigated by being rated M by the ESRB. However, in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, their respective provincial governments classified Soldier of Fortune and Manhunt as motion pictures, and gave them "Restricted" ratings, restricting their sale to adults only.[17] The ESRB has only given out the AO rating solely for violence two times: once for Thrill Kill (which was cancelled after the developer was bought by Electronic Arts) and the second time for Manhunt 2.[18] The Punisher[19] was not actually officially given the rating though was threatened with it and thus toned down the violence (by placing the offending scenes in black-and-white) because of it. Manhunt 2 was edited before release in order to qualify for the M category, though an uncut PC version has since been released with an AO rating. Of particular concern to the ESRB was a scene depicting castration, which was removed entirely from the M-rated console versions of the game. Thrill Kill received an AO rating with content descriptors for Animated Violence and Animated Blood and Gore. It was never released after the original publisher, Virgin Entertainment, was purchased by Electronic Arts who was more concerned about the adult content.[20] The violence in Thrill Kill was a concern to the ESRB as it was sexualized, with sadomasochistic activities.[citation needed]

Critics have claimed that the ESRB will only rate games AO if they have sexual content in them, no matter how much violence is present. Twenty-three products have been given and kept the AO rating. One was given it for unsimulated online gambling. Two were given for violence (see above). The rest were given it for sexual content and/or nudity. One game, Mass Effect featured two mild sexual scenes and was passed as an M, leading to controversy on the Fox News Channel as well as an internet meme known as "alien side boob." Another, God of War, came with many different sex scenes, some of them interactive, and, unlike Mass Effect, it was not subject to controversies or protests (although they take place off screen). As for AO-rated titles, one, Riana Rouge, had "Strong Sexual Content" as a content descriptor and also had "Realistic Blood & Gore". Similarly, Critical Point had "Strong Sexual Content" and "Violence" as descriptors. The latter is an eroge, and the former has Playboy Playmates in softcore sex scenes. This criticism is shared with the movie rating systems. Lula 3D contains descriptors for "Blood", "Strong Language" and "Violence" in addition to sexually explicit material. Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy Director's Cut also received the AO rating. While the game contains content identical to the original North American version titled Indigo Prophecy ("Blood", "Strong Language", "Use of Drugs and Alcohol" and "Violence"), the only content that was added in the director's cut version was sex scenes with nudity, one of which was interactive. Much like Fahrenheit, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas originally received an M rating but was changed to an AO rating because interactive sex scenes could be accessed in the game. It should be noted that many adult oriented products, including erotica, have actually received M ratings. For example, The Guy Game and the Leisure Suit Larry series. However, these products are not carried by many major retailers (and many are usually grouped with adult products anyway) because of the sexual content. The Private Party expansion pack for the PC version of Playboy: The Mansion (an M-rated game) was given an AO rating for "Strong Sexual Content" and "Nudity", despite all sexual activity being completely blurred out.

Hidden content

In 2005, members of the mod community discovered that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for Windows could be modified to unlock an incomplete sex mini-game known as "Hot Coffee", which Rockstar North had decided to leave out of the final game. California State Assemblyman Leland Yee used the situation to rebuke both Rockstar and the ESRB and argued that the ESRB was not doing its job properly. U.S. Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Lieberman also expressed their disapproval. Rockstar initially claimed that the mini-game was created by the mod community and was not a part of the original game. However, their stance changed when it was discovered that a third-party cheat device could be used to unlock the "Hot Coffee" scenes in console versions of the game. Shortly after, Rockstar conceded that the sex mini-game was in all released versions of the game, albeit inaccessible without third-party modification.[21] The ESRB responded to the controversy by re-evaluating the game and changing its rating from M to AO, setting a precedent that games can be re-rated based on external factors such as third-party cheat devices. Although this made Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas the best selling game to receive an AO rating, Rockstar soon released a patch that disabled the modification on PC versions and re-released the game as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Second Edition. The new release disabled all access to the "Hot Coffee" mini-game and was given the game's original M rating by the ESRB as a result.

In 2006, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion had its rating changed from T to M due to "more detailed depictions of blood and gore than were considered in the original rating, as well as a mod that, if accessed through a third-party modification to the PC version of the game, allows the user to play with topless versions of female characters." The game's publisher decided not to remaster or re-release the game to remove the hidden texture, stating that it believed the original rating was the most accurate assessment of what parents should expect from the game, since the texture was intended to be inaccessible to players. However, this texture was actually only used to provide a non-clipping texture for some armor types.[22][23][24]

Rockstar Games' Manhunt 2 was postponed for three months in the United States as well as several other countries and continents due to uncensored relentless violence and gore. The game was given an initial AO rating by the ESRB and received a revised M rating after numerous edits. It was released on October 31, 2007. Less than a week after the release, it was discovered that it was possible to modify the PS2 and PSP versions of the game to erase the patches that censored the violent content. Rockstar Games has since claimed that even with the unauthorized patches that remove some of the screen blurring that many of the scenes were toned down from the original version submitted to the ESRB for rating. Following that, the ESRB chose not to change the game's rating after the drawn-out process of giving it the M rating. Ultimately, a completely uncut and uncensored beta for the PS2 and PSP versions were found by cracking into Manhunt 2, and an AO-rated PC version was released by Rockstar as a download exclusive on November 6, 2009 to the download site, Direct2Drive.com, as virtually all North American retailers refuse to stock AO-rated games.

Similarly, The Punisher was hacked into to allow uncensored kills, and the PC version had patches to remove the filters and intensify the violence.

News leaks

The ESRB typically posts rating information for new titles on its website 30 days after the rating process is complete. This can cause the existence of a title to become public information before the game is officially announced. As a result, the ESRB has implemented a process by which publishers with concerns about this practice can request that information about the game not be posted to the ESRB's website until a specific date.[25]

Blocking content

On March 16, 2006, the ESRB gained, in an agreement with the video game software industry, the ability to restrict video game advertising "to consumers for whom the product is not rated as appropriate."[26] As a result, online retailers like Steam, Xbox Live Marketplace, PlayStation Network, and the Wii Shop Channel ban minors from downloading game demos or trailers for games rated Mature or Rating Pending.[27]

See also


  1. ^ a b What is the ESRB? from the ESRB FAQ
  2. ^ Rybka, Jason (2005). "ESRB Video Game Ratings and Video Game Content Descriptors". About.com. http://vgstrategies.about.com/od/faq/a/ESRBRatings.htm. Retrieved 2011-03-08. 
  3. ^ http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt154.shtm
  4. ^ http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt154.shtm
  5. ^ Kit Dotson (2010-12-29). [http://siliconangle User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windoows-to-block-ao-rated-games-from-the-xbox-360-console "Xbox refuses to allow AO rated games"]. http://siliconangle User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windoows-to-block-ao-rated-games-from-the-xbox-360-console. Retrieved 2011-01-12. 
  6. ^ Brendan Sinclair (2007-06-20). "Sony, Nintendo refuse to allow AO rated games on their consoles". http://www.gamespot.com/news/6172830.html. Retrieved 2011-01-12. 
  7. ^ "관계자들의 말씀 1. 한국의 게임위는 '플래시 게임'까지 심의를 하겠다고 한다. 그렇다면 미국의 ESRB는 어떨까? (추가)" (in Korean). 2007-06-06. http://pig-min.com/tt/611. Retrieved 2008-06-25. 
  8. ^ Parent's Guide to Games series, by Craig Wessel
  9. ^ An Alternative to Government Regulation and Censorship: Content Advisory Systems for the Internet Published Papers
  10. ^ a b Kohler, Chris (2009-07-29). "July 29, 1994: Videogame Makers Propose Ratings Board to Congress". Condé Nast Publications (Wired). http://www.wired.com/thisdayintech/2009/07/dayintech_0729/. Retrieved 2011-06-01. 
  11. ^ About ESRB
  12. ^ "The ESRB: What are you playing?". 2010-01-06. http://3xgamer.com/2010/01/esrb-playing/. Retrieved 2010-01-10. 
  13. ^ A majority of the information in this section was obtained from the archived ESRB website, available at Internet Archive.
  14. ^ "ESRB hiring full-time raters" - GameSpot News, 2007-2-21.
  15. ^ Snuff games and ratings - CNN/Money.com, November 26, 2003.
  16. ^ The Ratings Game: The Controversy Over The ESRB - Game Informer magazine, August 2006.
  17. ^ "Ontario slaps 'R' rating on video game". CBC News. 2004-03-05. http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2004/03/04/manhunt040304.html. 
  18. ^ "Manhunt 2 receives AO rating" - GameSpot News, 2007-06-19.
  19. ^ "Video game rating board don't get no respect" - Paul Hyman, The Hollywood Reporter, April 8, 2005.
  20. ^ "EA kills 'Thrill Kill' game before release". ZDNet. 1998-10-15. Archived from the original on 2006-11-16. http://web.archive.org/web/20061116223732/http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9595_22-512347.html. Retrieved 2006-12-18. 
  21. ^ "Hidden sex scenes hit GTA rating". BBC News. 2005-07-21. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4702737.stm. Retrieved 2006-12-18. 
  22. ^ "ESRB Changes Rating For The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion From Teen to Mature". ESRB. 2006-05-03. http://www.esrb.org/about/news/downloads/oblivion_release_5.3.06.pdf. Retrieved 2006-12-18. 
  23. ^ Sinclair, Brendan (2006-05-03). "Oblivion rerated M for Mature". GameSpot News. http://www.gamespot.com/news/6148897.html. Retrieved 2006-12-18. 
  24. ^ "Bethesda responds to Oblivion rerating". GameSpot News. 2006-05-03. http://www.gamespot.com/news/6148925.html. Retrieved 2006-12-18. 
  25. ^ Graft, Kris (2008-06-19). "ESRB Reins In Premature Game Leaks". Next Generation News. http://www.next-gen.biz/news/esrb-reins-premature-game-leaks. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  26. ^ Entertainment Software Rating Board Principles and Guidelines for Responsible Advertising Practices
  27. ^ Demos, Trailers and you - Xbox Lives Major Nelson

External links

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