A Brief History

Since its inception, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board has assessed the content of  games released in the United States. While created in response to concerns of extreme violence in games, it serves to provide a comprehensive rating that consumers can reference. The ESRB uses six general ratings, which are from the most to least accessible:

  • Everyone (suitable for all ages)
  • Everyone 10+ (suitable for anyone at least 10 years old)
  • Teen (suitable for anyone at least 13 years old)
  • Mature (suitable for anyone at least 17 years old)
  • Adults Only (suitable for anyone at least 18 years old)
  • Rating Pending

In order to be sold at most retailers, an ESRB rating is required to be listed on the box with content descriptions. From a consumer standpoint, the ESRB rating is most relevant when a game has a “Mature” or “Adults Only” rating. This is because one must have a valid photo I.D. to purchase it. The justification lies within the idea that it will prevent minors from obtaining access to games with content that is considered too mature for them to experience, although several loopholes exist for children to access games with higher ratings.

But what constitutes a game that is too “mature” for younger audiences today? More people are becoming exposed to mature content much earlier than past generations, aided by the accessibility of the Internet. Be it graphic content or suggestive material, younger generations are developing a greater awareness of ideas that were either not discussed, or extremely hard to obtain information about. I venture that most know someone under the age of seventeen that has played the latest Call of Duty game.

The Underlying Issue

While this highlights the difficulty in strictly implementing the ESRB, it also exposes a major issue with the standards of the board. Namely, there is a disconnect between the content standards of consumers and the ESRB. And this directly impacts the creative integrity of games localized for the United States.

Take Fire Emblem Fates for example. The game was first released in Japan in 2015, and localized for other territories the following year. Upon its release, the game experienced significant alterations to its content considered too mature for the target demographic. The biggest feature changed from Japan to the United States was “skinship”, resulting in fan outcry. The actual justification for the change never got confirmed, but one could assume the ESRB rating was a major factor. Perhaps if the feature remained uncompromised, it would receive a “Mature” rating?

A Comparison with CERO

Consider the following information: Fire Emblem Fates received a “C” rating from the Japanese rating board from CERO. To quickly summarize, CERO assigns ratings with a letter grade from A to Z. A “C” indicates that a game’s content is suitable for people ages 15 and over. The rating falls in between the “B” and “D” ratings, which provide thresholds of 12 years and 17 years respectively.

In comparison, the ESRB has “Teen” and “Mature” ratings, but nothing in between. This is problematic because it assumes the transition from teenager to adulthood is abrupt in terms of education and exposure. Most are in the late term of middle school when they turn thirteen, and in the late term of high school when they turn seventeen. No rating accounts for this, yet a distinction between “Everyone” and “Everyone 10+” exists. One could even argue that “Everyone 10+” is an unnecessary rating; Super Mario Odyssey has an “Everyone 10+” rating but the game is arguably suitable for younger audiences.

A Potential Solution

On a personal level, I would prefer a rehaul of the ESRB to reflect the changing conditions of society. And as a self-regulatory board, implementing these changes is a much smoother process. The current ratings need optimization to accurately portray the gaming audience. The ESRB removed the “Childhood” rating when it was irrelevant, and I believe the “Everyone 10+” rating should be next on the chopping board.

In its place, I would introduce a streamlined version of ratings that appeared along these lines:

  • Everyone (suitable for all ages)
  • Everyone 12+ (suitable for anyone at least 12 years old)
  • Everyone 15+ (suitable for anyone at least 15 years old)
  • Mature (suitable for anyone at least 17 years old)
  • Adults Only (suitable for anyone at least 18 years old)
  • Rating Pending

Gone is the “Teen” rating. This would be to erase the vagueness of the rating in favor of specific age thresholds that consumers can reference. Additionally, the “Everyone” tag would indicate that regardless of content suitability, anyone can purchase the game. “Everyone 10+” is altered to become “Everyone 12+”, and “Everyone 15+” would designate titles aimed at older teenagers. Games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Resident Evil could feasibly fall under the “Everyone 15+” rating. In addition, it would destigmatize the content that is considered appropriate.

This also benefits companies like Nintendo that want to maintain a family-friendly image. Presumably, they want to avoid a “Mature” rating to avoid compromising that perception. However, a game with an “Everyone 15+” rating might open the door to explore stories that are inherently more mature. In reference to before, a series like Fire Emblem could incorporate more violent or suggestive content without earning a “Mature” rating.

Conclusion

Most would agree that the ESRB maintains relevance within the video game industry. Without a ratings board, questionable content might find itself within the hands of children unequipped to witness it. But the ESRB is antiquated in its current state. With some adjustments to the ratings criteria, it could serve to benefit a greater proportion of consumers. And perhaps there are other aspects of the ESRB that require adjustments (including the content descriptors). Regardless, gradual change will result in a ratings board that better reflects the shifts in society pertaining to violent and sexual content.

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