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Inside the ESRB Ratings System

Zonk posted more than 6 years ago | from the throw-a-dart-hit-a-board dept.

Games 35

Gamasutra has a lengthy piece up today looking at the ins and outs of ESRB ratings. There are a lot of misconceptions about the process, and ESRB president Patricia Vance took some time to set the record straight: "Q: What do raters receive or know about a game before the video arrives? Do raters receive information on the game along with the video? For example, could a publisher send along promotional or explanatory material for the rater? A: Along with the video, the only other information that might be provided to raters is a script or lyric sheet provided by the publisher for the game being evaluated. Capturing language and dialogue on the video submission, particularly in context, can be tricky. So sometimes, instead of having a video with a montage of several instances of foul language (including the most extreme), the raters review the scripts and lyric sheets to gain a better understanding of the dialogue and frequency with which profanity and other potentially offensive language occur."

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35 comments

They May Have the Best Intentions... (2, Insightful)

cromar (1103585) | more than 6 years ago | (#20997389)

but I still don't trust them.

Re:They May Have the Best Intentions... (2, Funny)

morari (1080535) | more than 6 years ago | (#20998707)

Trust no one!

...except Deep Throat and Mr. X.

Re:They May Have the Best Intentions... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20998929)

And Chuck Norris.

I trust them more than... (1)

PhoenixOne (674466) | more than 6 years ago | (#21004065)

The ESRB isn't perfect, but I trust them more than Hilary Clinton or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Without something like the ESRB, the government will step in and tell you want you can and can't buy. At least with self-rating we can avoid government censorship.

Re:I trust them more than... (1)

Kratisto (1080113) | more than 6 years ago | (#21005823)

Avoid censorship? Is that why Manhunt 2 blurred their previously brutal kill scenes so you couldn't actually make them out? I'm a legal adult and I can't buy a game with brutal, gut wrenching violence because such games are censored by the industry.

Re:I trust them more than... (1)

PhoenixOne (674466) | more than 6 years ago | (#21011487)

I said "..avoid government censorship..".

The government had nothing to do with censoring Manhunt 2. In fact the government doesn't require you to rate your game at all, but Nintendo and Walmart do. Walmart will not sell an unrated or AO game and Nintendo will not allow them on their system (I think Microsoft and Sony have the same restriction, but I'm not sure).

Rockstar could of released Manhunt 2 as they liked. They could of skipped the ESRB, released to PC, and sell directly to consumers. But they wanted the money, so they had to play by Walmart's rules.

There are plenty of games with "brutal, gut wrenching violence" for sale, just like there are plenty of magazines with "raw hot sex", but you're not going to find either of them for sale at Walmart.

Re:I trust them more than... (1)

Gnostic Ronin (980129) | more than 6 years ago | (#21010175)

I think one of the biggest problems that ESRB has in making good ratings is that they don't get the full version of the game, they get a script, a video, and a short demo. I don't think you can really judge interactive content fairly if you can't interact with the entire thing.

Besides that, it's the game company that decides what gets sent. Most are probably fairly honest about it, but you can't really check to make sure that you got all the worst content. They might leave a minigame out, or a bit of dialog that is worse than the ones they submitted to ESRB. And even if you did get all of the bad content, chances are it's at least somewhat out of context. Maybe that gruesome disembowlment is one of several options and the player will be punished for choosing it. Maybe some innocent sounding snippets of dialog are actually racist in context (say they constantly mock the only black guy in the game). You just can't know without the full version.

I don't know that a focus group is the way to go either. I'd imagine that people on both sides (say Parent's Television Council and anti-censorship types) are keen to get their people in on the ESRB ratings game so that they can push it in the direction they want it to go. If they went to a more objective system -- counting the curse words and violent scenes for example, you couldn't push an agenda as easily. There are only so many swear words in a game, and they won't change just because John Hagee is doing the counting.

Re:I trust them more than... (1)

PhoenixOne (674466) | more than 6 years ago | (#21011829)

I agree that the ESRB may not use the best methods available, but they have to make compromises.

They can't play the entire game for many reasons, 1) many times the game is sent to be rated before it is finished, 2) most games are way too long to play in a couple of hours, 3) not everybody can finish a game, 4) even if you played the entire game you might miss something.

So, not perfect, but can you think of a better way to do it? One that doesn't require hiring only QA level gamers, that can play 80-120+ hours in less than a week (to avoid shipping delays), who represent the broad spectrum of America?

Instead, they have to trust the developer to show them the worse and punish them when they try to sneak something past. Rockstar lost millions because they didn't show a half-finished mini-game in GTA:SA that you couldn't play without patching the code. They're going to think twice before trying that again.

Left out one key piece of information (2, Interesting)

tepples (727027) | more than 6 years ago | (#20997587)

One thing I was expecting to find in this interview but did not find was how much it costs to submit or resubmit a product for rating, especially a simple little budget puzzle game from a smaller publisher that would otherwise have no problem getting an E.

Mirrored the MPAA (4, Insightful)

A Name Similar to Di (875837) | more than 6 years ago | (#20997633)

If anyone hasn't seen This Film is not yet Rated [imdb.com] which the Gamasutra article's title alludes to I would recommend it as an eye opening look into the ratings process.

Just like the MPAA the ESRB is using an anonymous group of individuals with no clearly defined lines between ratings to effectively censor content (since many consoles will not even play AO content similar to many major studios refusing to release NC-17 content).

And here's the quote that the summary should have included in my opinion:

Do raters apply their own moral standards (on subjects like violence, substance abuse, and sexuality) to guide their rating recommendations? Or, are they merely to apply a standard that the ESRB has set out for them?

PV: It's really a combination of both. Rating games is an inherently subjective practice in the sense that content is always going to be interpreted in different ways by different people. So part of the equation is the raters' own views on content, but as I said, parity and consistency play important roles as well.

Re:Mirrored the MPAA (3, Insightful)

coolhandlucas (1174225) | more than 6 years ago | (#20997793)

"Rating games is an inherently subjective practice in the sense that content is always going to be interpreted in different ways by different people."

Yep, and the rules we use to frame the arguments about this crap change very quickly, just as they have with movies. Look at "Barbarella" (1968) - full frontal nudity on a number of occasions with a PG rating; no modern movie could get away with that (I remember there being some brouhaha about one tit shown in "Titanic"). 40 years later and we've gone through many iterations of subjectivity in the MPAA ... it's no shock that the relatively young ESRB would have some issues. The real problem here is the level of import placed on these scores in political circles when they are intended simply be used as a guideline for a concerned parent, at which they more or less succeed.

I am, however, going to enjoy looking back in 39 years and saying "Can you believe they tried to ban Manhunt 2?"

Re:Mirrored the MPAA (1)

king-manic (409855) | more than 6 years ago | (#20998193)

Yep, and the rules we use to frame the arguments about this crap change very quickly, just as they have with movies. Look at "Barbarella" (1968) - full frontal nudity on a number of occasions with a PG rating; no modern movie could get away with that (I remember there being some brouhaha about one tit shown in "Titanic"). 40 years later and we've gone through many iterations of subjectivity in the MPAA ... it's no shock that the relatively young ESRB would have some issues. The real problem here is the level of import placed on these scores in political circles when they are intended simply be used as a guideline for a concerned parent, at which they more or less succeed.

I am, however, going to enjoy looking back in 39 years and saying "Can you believe they tried to ban Manhunt 2?"


I don't think society as a whole has gotten any more pruddish in the last 30 years but the MPAA ratings board is being run by a highly conservative tyrant. Film makers now have to make a outrageous version so they can trim things. Big studios can pay the MPAA off to get a softer rating for big projects. A whole documentary full of things are going wrong with the MPAA.

I'm so glad I live in Canada where extreme violence gets you a 18a while a film about life that has some nudity rightly gets a 14a.

Re:Mirrored the MPAA (1)

nEoN nOoDlE (27594) | more than 6 years ago | (#21001839)

I am, however, going to enjoy looking back in 39 years and saying "Can you believe they tried to ban Manhunt 2?"

Or looking back and saying "Jeez, it's amazing that Manhunt 2 was even conceived of, let alone RELEASED! Boy were we a bunch of savages in the early 21st century." Those aren't my current opinions, of course, but, as the Barbarella release has shown, it could swing either way.

Barbarella (1)

westlake (615356) | more than 6 years ago | (#21012835)

Look at "Barbarella" (1968) - full frontal nudity on a number of occasions with a PG rating

not quite true:

Barbarella was released in the USA before the MPAA introduced the motion picture rating system on November 1, 1968. It was consequently released with a tag "Suggested For Mature Audiences". A re-release in 1977 (to cash in on the success of Star Wars (1977)) was edited to obtain a "PG" rating and was called "Barbarella: Queen Of The Galaxy. The video version is of the original uncut version and not the "PG" version (despite the subtitle "Queen of the Galaxy" and the "PG" rating on the cover) The version now on video in Australia is of the Laser Disc version which has a more "nude" opening credit scene. The difference {is] in the floating titles [which] reveal more of Jane Fonda than the original version and video did. The original European version had all the nudity intact on its first release. Barbarella: Alternate Versions [imdb.com]

Re:Barbarella (1)

coolhandlucas (1174225) | more than 6 years ago | (#21057015)

Thanks for the clarification, that's very interesting to know.

Re:Mirrored the MPAA (1)

king-manic (409855) | more than 6 years ago | (#20998057)

If anyone hasn't seen This Film is not yet Rated which the Gamasutra article's title alludes to I would recommend it as an eye opening look into the ratings process.

Just like the MPAA the ESRB is using an anonymous group of individuals with no clearly defined lines between ratings to effectively censor content (since many consoles will not even play AO content similar to many major studios refusing to release NC-17 content).

And here's the quote that the summary should have included in my opinion:


The problem with this article is the ESRB is actually better and closer to the mark then the MPAA. A M rated game is reasonably close to other M rates games while a R rated film varies greatly in it's content. The ESRB seems to be run by fairly knowledgeable and moderate people while the MPAA was run by an active member of the republican party who came out with some fairly explicit statements of bias.

The parallel between AO and NC-17 is close and the lack of any accountability can be disconcerting if things change. But the ESRB does a much better job of rating things then the MPAA at the moment.

Re:Mirrored the MPAA (1)

iocat (572367) | more than 6 years ago | (#21004217)

I can say as a game developer that it's extremely rare to be surprised by a rating. That is, you know what will get you a T, and E10, and an M. I have heard terms like "hard T" (meaning close to M, but not quite) tossed around, and we did once have a game get an M when we were expecting a T -- that was a hassle -- but in general Ts, Ms, and E10s are consistant across the board.

Whether parents know it or not, the ratings system -- despite being subjective -- is extremely consistant, much more so than the movie ratings. Also, the content descriptors (animated blood, comic mischief, use of tobacco, etc.) give you way more info than the MPAA's system does.

Grandstanding scumbags like [insert name of any politician here] make me sick, because with the sole excption of Joe Lieberman, they don't try to present a balanced position, just cherry-pick incidents they can condemn. At least Joe *did something* about games that was positive and helped the whole industry (eg, help jump start the rating system) and parents, while others just try to score political points.

Anyway, as a developer and a parent, I 3 the ESRB.

Too close for comfort (1)

westlake (615356) | more than 6 years ago | (#21012997)

A M rated game is reasonably close to other M rates games while a R rated film varies greatly in it's content.

This strikes me as about the most damning thing you could say: That instead of drawing on a broad spectrum of ideas and content the M-rated game runs along a very narrow and predictable track.

Re:Mirrored the MPAA (1)

EtoilePB (1087031) | more than 6 years ago | (#20998613)

Just like the MPAA the ESRB is using an anonymous group of individuals with no clearly defined lines between ratings to effectively censor content (since many consoles will not even play AO content similar to many major studios refusing to release NC-17 content).

The de facto censoring, however, is on the retail end of the system, and not the ratings end of the system. I believe that the raters do the right thing, in general, rating what they're given. What needs to change, in order to make the system viable, is the concept that no game should be rated AO, and the concept that AO games should not be manufactured or sold.

Frankly, they should. Some things are NOT for children (as Slashdot recently discussed [slashdot.org] ) and the ideal change would be for mainstream society and retail outlets to recognize that, and to be willing to cater to ALL the age spectrum, not just the white-and-hispanic-males-ages-14-to-25 demographic that seems to be the GameStop Ideal.

As for anonymity, I interviewed at the ESRB for one of the raters positions, and after the illuminating and entertaining discussions I had with the staff there, I think the anonymity of the raters themselves (and they indeed sign many confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements) is essential to the process. Frankly, it makes them harder to intimidate, bully, or bribe. I'm sure the counter to that will be that it removes individual accountability as well, but the raters are accountable to each other and to the ESRB, and the fruits of their labor are not only not hidden, they are specifically advertised. Whatever consensus the raters come to on a game, the world knows what it is.

Re:Mirrored the MPAA (1)

A Name Similar to Di (875837) | more than 6 years ago | (#20999353)

The de facto censoring, however, is on the retail end of the system, and not the ratings end of the system.

How exactly do you see that as differing from the MPAA? An NC-17 movie can still be released just as an AO game can be released. Neither de facto censoring is the "ratings end of the system" saying "oh no, this game cannot be released."

I believe that the raters do the right thing, in general, rating what they're given.

I can't see how that conclusion was reached on your part. Was it because you played an "M" game and thought to yourself, "ah yes, this feels 'M' rated to me!" The problem with saying you agree with their ratings in this context is that you don't have a full information set. You don't know exactly what was submitted to the ESRB, and what was cut and edited out to reach their subjective standards. Further we don't have anything else to really compare the ESRB's ratings to, as mentioned in This Film, "Sure compared to nothing it's a step up, but that doesn't mean it's good" [I've paraphrased the quote to the best of my ability to recall].

Frankly, it makes them harder to intimidate, bully, or bribe.

I can't possibly buy that as an argument. If I was a crooked rater I could easily approach a game producer on my own, "Hey, want an 'M' rating?". As for intimidation and bullying do you honestly believe that the game publisher is going to start threatening these raters? Or do you believe it's the crazed fans that will hunt down the raters? If it's the later I submit to you that Jack Thompson is still alive and well as evidence that gamers do not tend to turn violent in these matters. Rather I see that as a great line to feed people "oh of course we can't reveal their identity, that could compromise the system!" Isn't that the exact rational that is attacked on /. with some frequency when it comes from a software vendor?

Re:Mirrored the MPAA (1)

grumbel (592662) | more than 6 years ago | (#21007333)

### An NC-17 movie can still be released just as an AO game can be released.

A AO game can only be released if its for the PC, Mac or Linux. Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony don't allow AO stuff on their consoles. So while the retail chain is a problem, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony are the bigger problem and need to be overcome first.

About the anonymity of the raters, I really don't see a problem with that by itself. The problem with the MPAA, as far as I got from the film, isn't that the raters are anonymous, but that the explanation given for why a movie got its rating aren't disclosed or at least not equally (i.e. small studio simply gets an NC-17, without further explanation, big studio gets detailed list on which parts to cut or change to get a lower rating).

How would she know if the ESRB is doing it's job? (2, Funny)

zzqzzq_zzq (883263) | more than 6 years ago | (#20997767)

Page 3..

"Truth be told, though, I'm just not privy to the conversations that take place when the raters are doing their job. We take the integrity of the process extremely seriously, and nobody else is present in the viewing room when raters are reviewing and discussing content."

So for all she knows they may be rolling d100, and BS'ing the rest of the session...

Its the ESRB, not Jury duty.........

Re:How would she know if the ESRB is doing it's jo (1)

Farakin (1101889) | more than 6 years ago | (#20997839)

It would be a different system and I think the ratings would reflect better if they used a Nielsen type sampling from around the country. Take a % based on population, give a loosely defined set of guidelines, pick a random sampling and rate. I think the main problem they have here in the ESRB are not gamers and not privy to the differences say between the violence of Halo/GTA (posted /. yesterday).

Re:How would she know if the ESRB is doing it's jo (3, Informative)

steveo777 (183629) | more than 6 years ago | (#20998533)

I think the main problem they have here in the ESRB are not gamers and not privy to the differences say between the violence of Halo/GTA (posted /. yesterday).

Try reading TFA:

How diverse is your pool of raters?

PV: Our group of raters includes a mix of male and female, parents and non-parents, hardcore gamers and more casual gamers, younger and older. We recruit from the New York metropolitan area, which has one of the most culturally and socially diverse populations in the country.
Sounds to me like they've got their bases covered pretty well.

And for the record, I think the ESRB does a pretty good job. Even when they re-rated GTA:SA. And Manhunt and Manhunt 2 should probably both be AO, but I'm not rating them.

The real question you should as is "who would you rather rate the games?" Besides yourself. You have to have a few qualifications to satisfy publishers. The group has to be small enough to ensure confidentiality, non-objective based (no or minimal political or social skews), and private. Draw on a larger pool and the publishers will get upset. They don't want any leaks about their content that they don't release.

And so, if you don't give it to the ESRB, or something very similar, then the job will fall into the laps of the politicians. Nobody wants that.

Re:How would she know if the ESRB is doing it's jo (2, Insightful)

moderatorrater (1095745) | more than 6 years ago | (#20998905)

That's bullshit. They've got six raters total; how diverse is that? If you were to divide people based on age (above/below a certain age so there's 2 groups), gender, and whether they're a parent or not, you would need eight different people to get each perspective. Adding more dimensions and more granularity (eg more age categories, age/number of children, race, etc), you're going to need more and more people to represent those groups. For her to say that they've got diversity when there's only six freaking testers total and only three from each game is, frankly, ridiculous.

Re:How would she know if the ESRB is doing it's jo (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20999729)

Yeah, six doesn't allow for a lot of diversity, but remember that one of the six can represent more than one "group". For instance, you might have an age 31 male who's a parent of a 10-year-old, but also a hard-core gamer.

Re:How would she know if the ESRB is doing it's jo (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21002873)

I get two.

1 sixteen year old male, no kids, hard core gamer.
1 45 year old woman, nineteen kids, believes the joker in a deck of cards doesn't represent but literally is Satan.

Re:How would she know if the ESRB is doing it's jo (1)

Drachemorder (549870) | more than 6 years ago | (#20998989)

"We recruit from the New York metropolitan area"
That explains everything. Dadgum yankees.

Re:How would she know if the ESRB is doing it's jo (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21001057)

I would actually rather have IGN or Gamespot rate the games since they actually play through it and experience it, and not just watch a 20 minute DVD.

Re:How would she know if the ESRB is doing it's jo (1)

sqrt(2) (786011) | more than 6 years ago | (#21003859)

And so, if you don't give it to the ESRB, or something very similar, then the job will fall into the laps of the politicians. Nobody wants that.
Are you forgetting the third, and best option? No body rates the games. Then we can all stop pretending this farcical moral crusade to categorize games into neat little slots with appropriate age groups was anything but wholesale censorship.

Re:How would she know if the ESRB is doing it's jo (2, Informative)

setien (559766) | more than 6 years ago | (#21007177)

I think they do a ridiculously bad job. I worked for a game company, and while we had no significant trouble getting grizzly, visceral murders through the rating process as below M, ESRB had problems with hints of nipple showing through a female characters shirt, and they had problems with characters smoking certain types of drugs. I think the hypersensitivity to sexual(-ish) content and drugs, but non-sensitivity to ultra violent content is a monumental double standard, which smacks all too much of a religion-based concept of ethics.

Re:How would she know if the ESRB is doing it's jo (1)

Chabo (880571) | more than 6 years ago | (#21031451)

It's not religion, it's the "standard" ethics code of the U.S. as a whole. In Europe, sex and sexuality aren't a big deal, which is why you can get a French movie intended for fairly young audiences that has some nudity in it. Meanwhile in the U.S., you can axe-murder someone in a PG movie, but show a nipple and it's immediately rated R.

Re:How would she know if the ESRB is doing it's jo (1)

Katmando911 (1039906) | more than 6 years ago | (#21003453)

Maybe the ESRB should be ran like Jury Duty with a random sampling of the population where it is unlikely that the same person will review many games. At least then a liberal person might get to influence something once in a while.

Re:How would she know if the ESRB is doing it's jo (1)

SailorSpork (1080153) | more than 6 years ago | (#21005537)

You may or may not have meant it as a joke, but it's a valid concern. Anyone remember the hullabaloo that was the rerating of Elder Scrolls Oblivion [wikipedia.org] ? The ratings board submitted that upon further review, it was more violent and gory than they had originally been shown (ignoring for the moment the 3rd party nudity patch); however Bethesda maintains that it had given them all the same information earlier and had indicated the maximum levels of violence and gore that it could on its submissions. The question is truly, who watches the watchers?

Rating problem? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#20997817)

I personaly dont think the rating is the problem. The real problem is a game with a certain rating getting to the hands of a minor because parents/stores dont enforce it.

New rating sugestion: AOAIUKKAWANR.CMJT

Adults Only And If Ur Kid Kills Anyone We Are Not Responsible.Check Mate Jack Thompson.
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