The Implications of the Ratings System in Video Gaming

An article written by Christopher Hopkins

November 2007

Electronic media sources inform viewers and listeners of the appropriateness of their content through the implementation of ratings system. Video gaming has been around for the past thirty years and have only posted ratings on the game packages for thirteen years. These ratings are informative enough to allow parents as the purchaser of video gaming content to regulate what they give to their children to play. With these ratings comes implications in the social, economic, and political spectrums.

Video game ratings became necessary as video gaming moved from public arcades to the home sector. Pong for the Atari 2600 in 1972 brought the video gaming experience to the home. No longer did players have to feed coins to an arcade cabinet to play their favorite games. Due to the graphical limitations of the earliest video game machines, the images looked pixelated and strayed far from the real elements they were based upon. As far as public arcade owners were concerned, all ages could place a coin into the machines and play, provided they were tall enough to reach the controls. With the rise in video game culture resulting from the emergence of home console based gaming, the technical specifications of the processors in the machines enabled programmers and game designers to enhance the quality of video and sound. CD based games could display live action images that, although pixelated in today’s expectations, are recognizable as real life. The technology in the arcades and in the homes merged in the early 1990’s by pushing the boundaries of how real the on-screen action should appear.

Pong from Video Olympics on the Atari 2600

Pong from Video Olympics on the Atari 2600

In 1992, two games entered the public sphere and caused huge controversy in what is appropriate content for video gaming. In the arcades, Mortal Kombat used digitized sprites to depict fighting to the death in a fighting game. Fighting games at the time, including Street Fighter II, used cartoon sprites to illustrate the characters and backgrounds.

Street Fighter 2 Ryu vs Chun Li

Ryu vs. Chun Li in China from Street Fighter 2

Mortal Kombat digitized the fighting movements of live actors in costumes and added blood and gore to exaggerate the intensity of combat. With the addition of secret combinations of buttons that would produce an extra gory finishing “fatality” to the losing character, public outcries and controversy sprung from parents.

Mortal Kombat 1 Fatality

Johnny Cage fatality from Mortal Kombat 1

For home consoles, Night Trap on the Sega CD in 1992 presented a unique gaming experience in its storytelling through live action video. The game’s objective was to spy on a house rigged with eight cameras in different rooms. Throughout the timeframe of the game, a group of teenage girls visit the family that lives there without knowing that they were invited so the family can extract their blood. Meanwhile, augers break into the house through many means, and the player is expected to prevent these bloodsuckers from attacking the girls. The scene in this game that caused controversy showed one of the girls using the mirror in the bathroom only to find an auger watching her behind the shower door. If the player doesn’t trap the auger at the precise time, the video will show the augers extract her blood with a giant claw and drill. At the time, this was highly graphic and sexual, although the actors set a comical tone for the subject material.

Night Trap 32X Lisa Death

Lisa captured by augers in Night Trap for the Sega 32X

Games like Night Trap were banned from shelves until a ratings system could end the controversy by members of Congress including Joe Liberman and Herb Kohl. The Entertainment Software Board, or ESRB, was established in 1994 as a reaction to the Congressional hearings that deprecated the new breed of games that were violent and sexual with no concern for the target audience. It borrows its age designations from the motion picture industry’s ratings system. A year before, console game companies used their own ratings system to gain the trust of buyers that the content for their systems was wholesome and appropriate for each age group. The ESRB ratings were placed on the front packaging of all games after 1994. There are six ratings ranging from eC for Early Childhood to A/O for Adults Only. Underneath the symbols are content descriptors which elaborate on what gives the game its designated rating. This additional information gives parents the understanding as to the extent of violence or sexual scenes.

ESRB Ratings Icons

6 Ratings Icons of the ESRB

As the official ratings system of the video gaming industry, virtually all games that are sold in the U.S. and Canada are rated by the ESRB. The ratings system is voluntary, although most games go through the process so they can be sold at all major retailers. The people who ultimately decide what is appropriate for the youth have a huge influence to what a child should have access. According to the ESRB website, each game rating is determined by a board of three educators, parents, or caregivers. Their identities are kept confidential and they are required to review the content and determine its age- appropriateness based on what the game company provides to the ESRB. The game publisher provides a document listing the most extreme content of the final product and the final product’s relative frequency of extreme content. It presents a videotape or DVD of in-game screens that display the pertinent content in the document. After an initial recommendation from the three raters, they deliberate on their ratings until they agree on a final recommendation which reaches the game publisher. Depending on the target audience, the game company can either accept the rating or alter the content in their game and resubmit a document and video to the ESRB.

Almost all game companies prefer to get a rating below A/O. Major chains and retailers will not sell A/O games. This eliminates the sales and profits the company can hope to expect. Content that is designated A/O contains gratuitous displays of violence and/or sex. Parents that are aware of the ratings system will never buy these games for their children. Last year, less than one percent of all 1,285 rating assignments were A/O. 53% of all games received an E for Everyone rating. This rating opens the target audience to just about everyone. There is very little violence and no sexual situations. Games with an E rating are entertaining for their gameplay rather than their edgy content. These games sell well due to their accessibility and appropriateness.

16% of the games rated received an E10+ for Everyone 10 and Up. These games are appropriate for ages ten and up, featuring more cartoonish violence and some sexual implications. This rating was added to the original five in March 2005 to differentiate games with bloodless action or damage. These games sell well because they have some violence that allows players to defeat the computer characters. 23% of games received a T for Teen rating. Teen games are suitable for ages thirteen and up due to strong language, suggestive themes, and violence to a larger degree than E10+. The 1992 games that caused controversy would fit under this rating. M for Mature composes 8% of the ratings in 2006. The gameplay of these games revolves around intense violence, killing, sexual content, or strong language. Game publishers that use edgy content hope to receive this rating rather than A/O. Mature games can sell well to an older audience, but usually sell best to hardcore gamers that expect the harsh content. M-rated games have less availability for advertising venues since most public areas are unavailable for them.

ESRB is a nonprofit, self-regulatory organization. Game publishers will highlight their games’ best features to win over the three randomly selected educators. Since very few games choose to keep an A/O rating, game companies have little to worry that their games will not have the support of all major retailers in their distribution. Some game publishers who do not present all material in the game face the revocation of the game’s rating. This happened in 2004 when Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was discovered to have an inaccessible through normal means minigame involving sexual play over a cup of “hot coffee.” After internet hackers exposed this game code, retailers were forced to remove the game from the shelves and to place an A/O sticker over the original M rating if they chose to sell the game. In this controversy, children who browsed the internet knew about this content well before their parents. The game’s subject material already bordered the A/O rating with its excessive violence and sex with no long term consequences. Because Rockstar Games did not present this material to the ESRB, they had a loss of 28.8% in the third quarter of 2005 due to the rerating.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on PC

Violence in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on PC

The way that the ESRB ratings are designed, there is a slight age difference but large social and economic implications between the M and A/O symbols. M is suitable for ages seventeen and up while A/O is suitable for ages eighteen and up. A/O games feature gratuitous amounts of violence and sex that exceed even that of M games. M games cover an age span of only age seventeen since T games cover ages thirteen to sixteen. Considering the development of a child and how a child can differentiate between reality and fantasy, the ratings suggest that by age seventeen, a teenager can recognize strong language and adult themes without emulating them. Then at age eighteen a teenager is fully cognizant of excessive violence and sex and is permitted to engage in game content that features them. Socially, the child can view violence and sexual situations in T games. In the thirteen years before age thirteen, the child should be exposed to light violence through comical humor such as cartoons or goofy sound effects. If the ratings were viewed as such, parents would have no problem in choosing what games to purchase for their children.

Parents are aware more than ever before of how to read and interpret the ratings on video game packaging. The average age of the purchaser of video games is thirty-nine. This is well above the age recommendations of the ESRB ratings. This suggests that children under the age of eighteen are getting their parents to buy more mature games for them. Minors cannot purchase games of mature content at major retailers. The responsibility and purchasing power comes by way of the parent. The marketing campaign targets the youngest and oldest gamers. The younger ones incessantly spread news of the game’s fun factor to their peers. Eventually a parent buys the game for his or her child. Once a child has the game, that child will convince his or her peers to get the game. Political powers in the gaming industry have the problem of how to get the most people to purchase their games. Laws restricting the selling of mature games to minors have been struck down in many states, including Louisiana, Minnesota, Illinois, California, and Michigan. Dissenters to restricting the purchase of these games cite the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution for “freedom of speech and expression.” Economically, banning minors from purchasing mature games excludes a core demographic of gamer from having easy purchasing power. In the end, game companies run a business and need an audience to accept the content of their games through the approval of the ESRB. Game companies hope to receive a favorable rating so they can maximize accessibility , invasiveness, and pervasiveness while pushing the maturity of the content. Socially, parents need to monitor what their children play. Completing a game can take as many as forty hours of constant gameplay to complete all the objectives. Such a time investment for a child is a serious purchase for a parent. Games are an investment of time. Parents need to do what the ESRB raters do not: play the full game completely. The morals and ethics of parents differs from family to family and from the ESRB raters to families. The ratings are a suggestion of what is inappropriate and offensive content for certain age groups. Parents need to step in-between the seller and the child to prevent children from having access to mature content.

With all the profit being made in teen and mature game, there is an emphasis in gameplay that is defined by violence and sex. As the age of the average gamer gets older with the age of video games, hardcore gamers use their purchasing power to support intense games that rely on violence, strong language, or sexual situations. The emergence of online play through the internet has bridged the age difference in gaming. Through voice and text chat, young gamers can communicate with older gamers. Because of the unpredictability of user exchanges, the ESRB has decided that online play is outside its scope of ratings. As a hidden venue for mature content, online services like XBox Live can expose younger children to harsh language and inappropriate dialogue. Parents need to be with their children when they play online to hear what children are hearing from other gamers. Depending on the time of day and time of year, the online gamer attitudes and personalities will fluctuate. Like any online interaction, parents need to ensure their children do not give out too much personal information over the online gaming service. The ESRB cannot suggest with a rating what a parent should expect from online play since the nature of online play is evolving in the current day.

The interaction between the government and the family has resulted in the dialogue between video game ratings and those who sell video games. State governments face difficulty in restricting the sales of mature games to minors. Major retailers and distributors do not safeguard children when the parent is the primary purchaser. Parents have to make their best judgment based on the ESRB rating and their own knowledge of the game. Before a game is released, it is reviewed in most gaming magazines and websites. Parents can look to these to find information about the gameplay and what themes are present in the game. For children that play games for more than three hours a day, video games mold the way children think and perceive their surroundings. Parents should be there as their children develop their own thoughts and perceptions so that their children do not think everything they see is acceptable. They want their children to experience wholesome fun with games. The ESRB was put into place to help parents make a buying decision for their children. In conclusion, ratings systems for video games best serve the general public when parents interpret them wisely and then purchase the games they ultimately find suited for their children.


“Entertainment Software Ratings Board.” ESRB. 2006. Entertainment Software Association. 26 November 2007. http://www.esrb.org/index-js.jsp.

Kline, Stephen, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig De Peuter. Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing. London: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2003.

McAllister, Ken S. Game Work: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 2004.

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