I am asked questions by concerned parents and caregivers everywhere I go. One of the most common subjects that I am asked about is the ESRB and how it works. I talked about it in a general sense when I posted my articles a few years ago about each rating category, but I didn’t really get down into the nitty-gritty of the process.
There is no time like the present is there? Here we go!
In 1994 the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) established the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board). This is a non-profit organization that assigns content ratings and establishes advertising and privacy practices for the “software entertainment” (Read: video game) industry.
There are two different ratings processes that the ESRB uses to rate games. They have a “Long form” process that is designed for games that will be sold on store shelves and a “Short form” for games that will be distributed on a digital platform (like the iOS App Store). The fact that mobile games are given a less thorough review is less than ideal, but the sheer volume of mobile apps released daily makes the Long form process impractical for use on them.
The Long Form Process
The long form process starts when the game’s publisher submits two key pieces of data to the ESRB for review. They are (quoted directly from the ESRB website):
- a completed ESRB online questionnaire detailing the game’s pertinent content, which essentially translates to anything that may factor into the game’s rating. This includes not only the content itself (violence, sexual content, language, controlled substances, gambling, etc.), but other relevant factors such as context, reward systems and the degree of player control; and
- a DVD that captures all pertinent content, including typical gameplay, missions, and cutscenes, along with the most extreme instances of content across all relevant categories. Pertinent content that is not playable (i.e., “locked out”) but will exist in the game code on the final game disc must also be disclosed.
Once this information is received a set of at least three ESRB raters reviews the content and they work together to decide what rating the game should be given. The ESRB staff will then review the information that the raters gave and might even do ANOTHER review to make sure there is parity between the recommendations.
Shortly after this is completed the ESRB will generate a ratings summary which goes into more detail and will include info about the contributing factors. This is where they get into the “why” behind the rating itself.
That rating is then returned the the publisher who has the opportunity to change the game to reduce their rating. If they choose to do so the process will start again. I would guess that HALO 5 went through a lot of these revisions as they deliberately went after a T rating.
Once the rating has been completed and the game is published the ESRB completes yet another review of the games to make sure that nothing snuck in and to ensure compliance with any of their changes. The packaging and the inserts are reviewed as well! (No stones are left unturned here!) A lot of the post release review comes in the form of playtesting which is really similar to what we at EFG do when we review a game. They, however, are mainly focused on the content of the game and whether or not it matches up with what they were told in the pre -launch screening process.
The Short Form Process
The short form process is intended for games that will only be available for purchase online. It is aptly names as it consists mainly of a questionnaire that is made up of multiple choice questions. The digital game’s publishers will answer questions similar to the above, but will also answer questions about location sharing, monetization and if the user is granted unrestricted internet access through its use. These responses are used to automatically generate the rating category, content descriptors, and interactive elements.
I’m sure a lot of you are wondering how the ESRB handles ratings issues. Mistakes can obviously happen since this is just a questionnaire and some people, are downright malicious. The ESRB makes use of a wide range of reporting tools through web based game distribution channels and reacts swiftly when games are rated incorrectly.
If the ESRB is made aware of these errors they will move swiftly to correct those ratings. In fact, if it is an obviously malicious act then they will move to have the game pulled from the stores entirely.
And that, my friends, is that. The ESRB Rating process in a nutshell.