No game can exist without its players, and the ratings game is no exception. A publisher who wants to get real retail orders will need to submit his or her game to one of two organisations, depending on continent. Once there, the games are handled very differently - but with some surprising similarities that we'll look at.
For those on the American side of the pond, your rating agency is the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB. As mentioned previously, the ESRB began its existence in 1995 as a joint effort from the Entertainment Software Association, which was at the time known as the Interactive Digital Software Association.
The ESRB rating system is made up of six total ratings, featured below. Each of these ratings has a context description below it, containing more than 30 choices of descriptions from "Cartoon violence" to "Strong Sexual Content" and everything in between. Content is allowed further permutations with the words "Mild" or "Strong" to describe each term. Overall, the descriptions are easily the most comprehensive, but the ratings themselves are also the least thanks to their large age-spreads.
The ESRB rating guidelines
To submit a game for rating by the ESRB, a publisher must submit video-taped footage of the game being played during what it feels are the most graphic or extreme portions. Along with this, a general questionnaire must be included as well as a cheque for between $2,000 and $3,000 USD. Three trained raters (all rating employees are part-time) will then watch the footage and agree upon a rating. If the publisher doesn't like the rating, it can edit the game and resubmit new footage, or appeal the decision to a board made up largely of industry executives.
Once the game is ready for release, a boxed copy must be sent to the ESRB for a final look-over. A group of randomly selected reviewers will then play through the game to make sure that the publisher did not mislead the ESRB in its original footage. If it is deemed to be alright, the game can release with the rating provided. Otherwise, a fine is assessed and the process is started again.
The ESRB is not a government agency and its rating is not in any way legally enforceable in either the US or Canada - it is strictly offered as a guideline. Therefore, retailers do not have to check for proper age for the purchase of the game, unlike going to the movies, where age ratings are legally enforced. Though the US Congress has attempted to intervene by changing the rating guidelines themselves as well as rating policies (while offering the ESRB no funding or help), no strong moves have really been made to offer age restricted buying aside from those by Miami attorney Jack Thompson. And with a look at the system, it's hard to really think he's all that crazy after all.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The ESRB is far from the worst system one could possibly concoct, but it has some deep-seeded weaknesses, too. Of course, along with those weaknesses are a couple of things that the UK/EU system could learn from, as can be seen on the next page.
The biggest strength of the ESRB is its effort for content description. A game can be given over 30 different content warnings, which can pretty well run the gamut and greatly inform a reading parent about the game that he or she may be about to buy for a child. On top of that, the addition of the words "mild" or "strong" (much like DVDs) mean each issue can be explained in three terms, allowing one to easily choose a game based on his or her values and desires.
The GTA games have caused recent controversy.
On the flip side, the actual big-letter ratings need some major work. There are only two content statements to cover everything from ages 12 to 17. Most violence defaults to "Mature" whether comic or otherwise, since it is not likely sufficient for the minimum recommended age of the "Teen" rating. This makes it hard for a parent to make a good judgment on the game, as it may conflict with the descriptor text below it. After all, Ratchet: Deadlocked warranted only a 3+ in the EU due to its clearly cartoon nature - but in the US, it was slapped with a "T" rating.
The agency can determine these nuances of descriptor text partially because it is forced to actually view footage of the game in question - both in video before release and actually playing through it at the time of production. This is actually quite a step from the European side, which you'll see in a minute. Since the games are all individually viewed, there is little chance that a game's rating will miss important portions unless the publisher actively works to cover them up, a laGrand Theft Auto: San Andreas and its very hot coffee.
However, this also has a caveat. Games can be re-reviewed for very minor changes and a new license fee, which is a small price to pay for a new sample of reviewers. Since the reviewers are part-time, a couple runs through the system could net you a lower rating - particularly for games on the border between "M" and "T" or "M" and "AO" (which many chain stores won't even carry). Since each step down in the ESRB scale is so many more potential sales thanks to the large spread between ratings, this can be an enticing game to a publisher.
Above all, it can't be ignored that there is the potential for the government to monkey with the way the ESRB does its business. Of all of the changes suggested, not one of them has been to help fund the agency and allow it more dedicated staff - nor has there been one to make the ratings enforceable by law. Instead, the only cries from Washington have been for harsher ratings and mandatory lengths of review, with little in the way of constructive suggestion as to why or how. But, hey... that's Congress for you.