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Is the ESRB Effective Anymore?

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I love sharing my opinion on what goes on in the video game industry.

ESRB Rating symbols

The symbols the ESRB will assign to a game usually found in the bottom left corner of the case

The symbols the ESRB will assign to a game usually found in the bottom left corner of the case

The ESRB

The Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB, is an American self-regulatory organization that rates video games, assigning a recommended age group for the kind of content in a video game. It was founded after the release of Mortal Kombat, a game that used graphic kill moves with a nice helping of blood, and Night Trap, a game that used Full Motion Video (FMV) with what was considered sexually suggestive content.

Usually, when purchasing a game at a retailer, the retailer will look at the rating symbol and judge whether the person buying the game is in compliance with what the game is rated.

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Of course, it's not all 100% on retailers to prevent games with high ratings from getting into children's hands. Parents are also responsible with monitoring the games their kids are playing. And this is were the issues begin. It's all a question of what kind of content is being examined and rated. The ESRB was formed in 1994, a year after DOOM was released. DOOM is considered to be the godfather of the modern first person shooter, and a game that was considered to be an influence in the Columbine school shooting. DOOM II was released in 1994 with a retail release.

This is my personal copy of DOOM II for windows 95, Note the ESRB rating in the bottom left corner with the letter M for Mature

This is my personal copy of DOOM II for windows 95, Note the ESRB rating in the bottom left corner with the letter M for Mature

And this brings us to the first problem faced with the ESRB, shareware. If the ESRB was theoretically formed in 1992, it would have been able to give the original DOOM a rating, but there is a problem. The orginal DOOM was released as shareware in three different episodes, with the first episode being free. Shareware is a type of software that comes in the form of a downloadable link or a CD that would come in a mail order. This means that the game would not have an official retail release and thus no rating.

Of course, shareware is an old way of doing things and now most games have the time to enjoy a retail release. That was until the advent of online distribution and independent game titles through services such as Steam.

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Steam

This is were Steam comes in. In short, Steam is an online retailer for games, both big name games and indie games. Not only is it the latter that is the crux to the ESRB, but the site as a whole could potentially de-legitimize the rating of a game altogether. Indie games on Steam don't get a rating from the ESRB unless it also retails on consoles or Google Play.

Even if a game gets an ESRB rating on Steam or a rating in general, nothing really stops a child under the age limit from purchasing online. Steam asks to verify the users age, and that's it. The ratings are practically useless unless a parent is monitoring what their kid is buying, but how frequently does that happen? The final thing I would like to point out as a problem with the ESRB is the ESRB itself.

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The Problem Is on the Inside

Let's take a step back and just ask the basic question, who is deciding the rating? Is it a group of game critics? Maybe former or recent game developers? How about gamers themselves? None of these are correct. Instead, the ESRB decides that random people who really have no experience with games are the perfect candidates. These candidates must have some kind of experience with children. Now, this isn't entirely a bad thing, as these people can decide whether or not a game is good for a kid. The issue stems from people not interested in games. Why would they care for a rating if they see a pixel of blood? Would they just assume that anyone under 18 can't play? Finally, lets take a look back at the formation of the ESRB, the roots of it all, and this is where it gets...strange. The ESRB was developed by Interactive Digital Software Association or just IDSA (Now known as ESA). Members of the ESA include Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Capcom, Microsoft, Ubisoft, Konami, and much more. Some of the largest video game publishers are the ones in control of the ESRB. The ESA itself has lobbied Congress into getting bills beneficial to the gaming industry's copyright protection.

The League for Gamers (LFG) even went out of their way to call the ESA, "the NRA for gamers" after the ESA was caught supporting SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act). This all ties back the ESRB as the ESA can directly influence ratings. Take-Two Interactive is a member of the ESA, and is also the publisher of Grand Theft Auto, an infamous game series known for its depictions of violence and crime, yet it maintains an M rating and not an AO? Well, it gets worse when I saw that the CEO of the ESRB is Strauss Zelnick, who is also the CEO of Take-Two Interactive. When I started writing this, I had just thought that the ESRB was outdated and obsolete. But the further in I went, the more I realized how much more complicated this whole situation is.

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