The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), is a non-profit, self-regulatory group established in 1994 by the ESA. The ESRB assigns computer and video game content ratings, enforces industry-adopted advertising guidelines and helps ensure responsible online privacy practices for the interactive entertainment software industry.
Universal Entertainment Ratings Systems
Mr. Taylor explained, “An ‘M’ rated game, [would not necessarily] equal the same on television. What it would equal on the screen, and other media, [may differ as well]. In addition, just how to fit everything into neat categories for the consumer could be very confusing. The simplicity of the G, PG, PG-13, R, of the motion picture industry and the E, T and M of the ESRB system, are clear. The [fact that] people understand them, for the incredible level of content, [confirms that] the ESRB provides a system that actually is a benefit to the ultimate audience, which is consumers.”
The importance of the ESRB may be best understood when compared to what occurred in the motion picture industry with regard to regulation. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1915 case of Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (https://caselaw.findlaw.com/court/us-supreme-court/236/230.html) that motion pictures were not governed by the First Amendment, ordinances banning the public exhibition of “immoral” films multiplied. Fostered by public outcry over perceived immorality in the movies, along with the growing number of city and state censorship boards, the industry trade and lobby organization – Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (later, the Motion Picture Association of America or MPAA in 1945) was created.
The MPAA was headed by Will H. Hays, a Republican lawyer, former U.S. Postmaster General, and campaign manager for President Warren G. Harding in 1920. Mr. Hays immediately instituted a morality clause to apply to anyone working in films, which helped to quash attempts to institute federal censorship over the film industry.
Mr. Taylor recalled, “They came up with these incredibly silly rules about what you could and could not do in movies. If I remember correctly, you could not say the word “abortion.” There were also many other rules which literally choked the ability to tell stories.”
Developed as a production censorship tool, the Hays Code (Code) was created as a set of industry guidelines governing the making and filming of motion pictures in the U. S. The MPAA adopted the code in 1930, effectively enforcing it in 1934. The Code specifically described what was considered “morally” acceptable or unacceptable content, for all motion pictures produced for public audiences.
Of course, the most problematic issues as a result of the Code were just how to enforce its “General Principles,” which encompassed the following:
How to interpret the Code adequately in the creation of a story of any interest became the bane of existence for many a filmmaker and studio, during the time that those principles were in place. Most would agree that almost any film could fall outside of the confines of the Code.
In 1968, the MPAA finally abandoned the Code, in favor of the subsequent MPAA film rating system. In so doing, the motion picture rating system was developed and basically freed the movie business for creative works, so that films such as Midnight Cowboy, the Godfather movies and Jaws were possible. Prior to the new rating system, it would have been impossible to advance to the kinds of films we enjoy today.
Similar to the MPAA, the ESRB provides the sort of system for the video computer game industry and consumers, allowing for creative expression, while mandating a proper age on the rating of the game. It was agreed that ratings would be applied, so that people would know what a game’s content is, and can purchase it or not, accordingly. The industry voluntarily abides by the ESRB code, and retailers play an essential role in enforcing it.
Interestingly, the Federal Trade Commission has reviewed all the different media rating systems available, and found that 80 % of the parents are aware of the ESRB system, with 10 % using it to determine purchasing decisions.
Mr. Taylor continued, “We also found out through other polling, that 89% of the parents monitor the contents of the game and 83% are involved in the purchase or rental of games. This is a great story to tell, and allows our industry to make games for everyone. All kinds of demographics, from seniors playing bowling games to those who enjoy first person shooter and role playing games, as well as sports, enjoy video games. And that is because we have a voluntary rating system in place that allows for that exploration.”
Many ESA Members Are Gamers
In addition to assisting the gaming industry to confront major challenges, the ESA supports the industry by educating the public about exactly who gamers are, to ensure that the audience is understood and recognized. For example, many people continue to believe that a “gamer” is a teenager, when in fact, the average gamer is approximately 33 years old and has been playing for on average, 12 years or more.
According to Mr. Taylor, “67 % of heads of households play computer video games. It is not all child’s play, although fortunately there is play for children available. Part of the challenge, is creating a great understanding of the facts of who the gaming population is, as well as the positive contributions our industry is making in any number of areas.”