Entertainment Software Rating Board

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is a self-regulatory organization that assigns age and content ratings, enforces industry-adopted advertising guidelines, and ensures responsible online privacy principles for computer and video games in the United States and Canada. The ESRB was established in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association (formerly the Interactive Digital Software Association), in response to criticism of violent content found in video games such as Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, and other controversial video games portraying excessively violent or intense sexual situations. The board assigns ratings to games based on their content, using judgment similar to the motion picture rating systems used in many countries, using a combination of six age-based levels intended to aid consumers in determining a game’s content and suitability, along with a system of “content descriptors” which detail specific types of content present in a particular game. The ESRB also maintains an code of ethics for the advertising and promotion of video games, ensuring that marketing materials for games display their ESRB ratings information, and are targeted to appropriate audiences. The ESRB also operates an online privacy certification program, and in 2011, began a program for rating mobile apps in partnership with CTIA. Although use of the ESRB ratings system is not enforced by federal law in North America, it is effectively a de facto standard because of the collective leverage of the board and the video game industry: major console manufacturers will not license games for their systems unless they carry ESRB ratings, most retail stores enforce ESRB ratings, and also do not carry any games which are not rated by the organization. Due to the level of consumer and retail awareness of the ratings system, along with the organization’s efforts to ensure that retailers comply with the ratings system and that publishers comply with its marketing code, the ESRB has considered its system to be effective, and was praised by the Federal Trade Commission for being the “strongest” self-regulatory organization in the entertainment sector. Despite its positive reception, the ESRB has still faced criticism from politicians and other watchdog groups for the structure of its operations, particularly in the wake of a 2005 incident that surrounded the organization’s handling of “hidden”, objectionable content in a game which could be accessed using a user-created modification. In particular, critics have asserted that the ESRB has a conflict of interest because of its ties to the video game industry, and that the organization does not rate certain games (particularly the Grand Theft Auto series) harshly enough for their violent or sexual content in order to protect their commercial viability. Contrarily, other critics have argued that, at the same time, the ESRB rates certain games too strongly for their content, and that its influence stifled the viability of adult-oriented video games, due to the board’s restrictions on how they are marketed and sold.

Richard Goodwin

Richard Goodwin has been working as a tech journalist for over 10 years. He has written for Den of Geek, Fortean Times, IT PRO, PC Pro, ALPHR, and many other technology sites. He is the editor and owner of KnowYourMobile.

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