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The ESRB: Twenty Years of Sex and Violence

President Patricia Vance on rating board's first two decades, Hot Coffee as a highlight, and the challenges ahead

The Entertainment Software Rating Board began rating games 20 years ago today, with an initial batch of games including Doom for the 32X (M for Mature) and Pitfall for Super Nintendo (T for Teen). What began as a hastily proposed compromise to placate US legislators in the wake of Congressional hearings on violent video games has become an industry institution, rating nearly 38,000 games and apps across more than 40 different platforms. ESRB president Patricia Vance spoke with GamesIndustry.biz to mark the occasion, and while she wasn't with the group from the beginning, she underscored how its formation averted a potential disaster for the gaming industry.

"I think that there is always going to be concern and sensitivity about a variety of different content in our media, not just violence..."

"Had the industry not taken the measures it did at the time--when there were Congressional hearings and a lot of pressure to come up with a standard--had they not done that, I think the government would really, frankly, have had to step in because of the general concern about video games and now there were more mature games. Many people in the government as well as in general public assumed that all video games were for kids. That clearly had begun to change, and I think it was timely on the part of the industry to come together and create these standards that became the ESRB."

Vance noted that the US government seems to prefer self-regulation to stepping in and imposing ratings standards on media of all kinds, which no doubt helped the ESRB get established. But even after two decades of the ESRB demarcating E for Everyone (or K-A for Kids to Adults as it was originally known) from M for Mature and a 2011 Supreme Court victory, she isn't sure if the debate over violent games in the US has been settled.

"That's a hard question," Vance said. "I think that there is always going to be concern and sensitivity about a variety of different content in our media, not just violence... I think over time there's more recognition of the fact that the industry has a ratings system that consumers are aware of and are using, and that the industry is doing a good job in self-regulation. So I don't think there's much of an incentive these days for the government to step in."

Aside from the lack of government intervention, Vance listed three highlights of the group's history to date. First, she stressed the high awareness and use of the ratings among parents. About 85 per cent of parents surveyed say they're aware of the system, and 75 per cent say they use it all the time or most of the time when purchasing games. Those numbers haven't changed much of late, but Vance is hoping new generations of parents who grew up with games and the ESRB rating system may help push those figures higher.

Vance's second ESRB high point has been in the way it has offered parents more information about the games they buy than ever before, including ratings summaries for boxed games and a mobile app that lets people easily peruse that extra info while out shopping. Finally, she pointed to retailer enforcement of the ESRB system, perhaps the most significant change since she joined the group in 2002.

"Over time, the levels of policy enforcement improved dramatically," Vance said. "And it didn't just happen; it happened because of a lot of the work we were doing, and a lot of support from the top of each of those organizations."

"I actually look at [Hot Coffee] as a relatively proud moment. For us, it showed that the system worked."

In the early 2000s, when the Federal Trade Commission first started mystery shopping game retailers to see if they would sell M-rated titles to unaccompanied minors, Vance said the kids were only being carded about 15 percent of the time. In last year's FTC report, kids were prevented from buying M-rated games 87 per cent of the time, surpassing the enforcement rate on R-rated movie tickets, DVDs, and CDs with explicit lyrics.

Vance credited that improvement to the ESRB Retail Council, wherein major retailers agreed to enforce the ESRB system, and then hired the FTC's mystery shop firm to send unaccompanied minors into 100 branches of each chain to buy M-rated games. The ESRB then shared the data with retailers and used it to train their employees better. Additionally, they all implemented cash register prompts to remind clerks to check IDs whenever people buy M-rated games.

The Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Hot Coffee scandal, in which hackers uncovered a sex minigame hidden within the code of Rockstar's hit game, prompting a re-rating to AO for Adults Only, did not make Vance's list of ESRB highlights. However, it wasn't a lowpoint in her estimation, either.

"I actually look at that episode as a relatively proud moment," Vance said. "For us, it showed that the system worked. It was obviously a difficult time, but at the end of the day, it was proof that the system worked... That episode allowed us to get out in front and start talking more about the ratings and how important it is for parents to check them. So it definitely gave us an opportunity to go out and reinforce the message that the ESRB is there to help parents make good decisions for their families."

As for the next 20 years, Vance said the biggest challenge for the ESRB will be about making ratings available across all devices, everywhere games are played or sold. And while there's been progress on that front recently--ESRB ratings have been added to the Firefox Marketplace and will roll out on other storefronts in the next 6-12 months--Vance wouldn't discuss any sort of progress in having them added to the two major mobile storefronts: Apple's App Store and Google Play.

"We would like our ratings to be available across all devices, which would include the Apple and Google stores," Vance said. "I obviously can't comment on their inclination to use the system or not. We've certainly talked to everybody."

[CORRECTION]: This article originally made reference to a recall for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. A Take-Two representative said the game was not recalled, as retailers were given the option of putting AO for Adults Only stickers on their existing copies, or swapping them out with Take-Two for updated inventory. We regret the error.

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Latest comments (16)

Steve Wetz Reviewer/Assistant Editor, Gamer's Glance3 years ago
I really liked the first half of this article, because it seemed like the ESRB was concious of its only real function - preventing government intervention by displaying the rating of video games in order to give customers an concise, yet educated decision in their own (or their children's) content.

Then this popped up:
major retailers agreed to enforce the ESRB system
That's not even a LITTLE realistic. I don't know of any store which actively polices this on a consistent basis. Half the kids I saw in line to receieve their GTA V preorders were 12-14 years old (unaccompanied, mind you). They all got the game. The bottom line is, retailers don't care because selling more games means more money to them - $60 from a 12 year old is worth as much as $60 from a 20 year old. And most parents don't care either.

I don't know if Vance is unaware or simply continuing the smokescreen to prevent the government from being involved, but I'm thinking the latter.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 3 years ago
Steve, where do you live that this took or takes place? For years, at least at shops like GameStop, Toys R' Us and other major retailers (here in NYC), M-rated games aren't sold to kids who stroll in, nor are pre-orders taken from them. Granted, smaller indie shops probably break that unwritten rule on a daily basis, but I've seen kids kicked out of some major game shops and game departments during school hours or when trying to trade in games any other time without a parent or other adult present.

Then again, eBay and other online shopping spots with no age verification have made enforcing anything the ESRB wants quite moot these days. Some lazy gift-buying adults just want that game shopping out of the way, so they'll buy something and not look at a rating just because the game is on a gift list and they really don't want to shop around much. Cha-ching!

Still, as someone who worked in an indie shop for a few years that got around to enforcing the "rule", we also learned a LOT about how much parents and gift-buying adults paid attention to ratings (at least a dozen years back). You're dead on that most parents don't care, though. Still, my experience was that once they saw what they were paying for, many times they refused to buy games rated past little Johnny's age group.

I can't tell you how many of those kids gave me the stink-eye when I told their parents that game they wanted was rated M for a reason. My boss had a few young children at home, so he was a bit strict about kids rolling in with birthday money, buying games and later, having angry parents come in demanding tho know who sold then whatever game of the month was getting the most ire in the news (it was usually something from Rockstar, heh). We ended up with better sales as a result of this because word spread that were were a more honest small shop than other places that sold stuff to kids, then acted as if it wasn't their responsibility when the parent got offended by what they saw when they finally peeked in on a play session.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 3 years ago
The ESTB is certainly way better and more consistent than the
That being said, I'd love to know why the Halo games are "M". I don't care a lot, but it's always been mystifying, espwcially since Destiny is "T", and us identical.
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Show all comments (16)
Barrie Tingle Live Producer, Maxis3 years ago
Maybe it is just me but Hot Coffee was a real non-issue for me, maybe it is cos of different upbringings in different countries and the USA's apparent shyness around nudity and sex in media.

The reason it really didn't feel like an issue is that; you had to modify the game to see it, the characters were dry humping from what I understand (fully clothed) and the game was rated M.

My biggest gripe with ESRB (probably not their fault though) is that they have an AO rating but never use it because retailers won't sell games rated that. Lets face it, GTA would likely be an AO game if they knew it would get sold but because it has an M rating instead the retailers will stock it.
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Axel Cushing Freelance Writer 3 years ago
A number of years ago, as part of a English class, I had to write a research paper, providing a testable hypothesis, gathering data, etc. Since the ESRB was still fairly new, I decided to see if the ratings systems out there (ESRB and RISA) were doing any good or if it was just another sop to a moral panic.

From the (admittedly thin) data I could gather, two things jumped out at me. First, nobody paid attention to the ratings indicators. For all the colorful packaging, those big black and white blocks with text and graphics went completely unnoticed. Second, the average consumer of the time (circa 2000) wanted there to be a rating system in place. As near as I could tell, people had gotten exactly what they wanted and hadn't even known about it.

For myself, I have never been a big fan of the ESRB or RISA systems, or any rating system for that matter. I hold them to be the descendants of the Comics Code, perhaps not quite as draconian, but no less punitive. I believe they were the craven compromises made in the name of expediency when the industry should have spit in Congress' eye and dared them to justify how video games didn't enjoy the sort of First Amendment protections guaranteed to print, film, video, and audio. The fight might have been lost, but then again it might have been won. If films like Scanners or Salo, or The 120 of Sodom can be preserved and given the Criterion treatment, if books ranging from Nabokov's Lolita to Morrison's Beloved can address topics that are at best uncomfortable to consider without being brought before a Congressional committee, why were video games singled out? Because of the erroneous association in the minds of so many that they were a diversion for juveniles, that they could never hold any sort of literary or artistic value beyond mere twitch entertainment. I believe that the ESRB subtly propagates this attitude. By telling people that they have to "protect their children" from content that "parents might find objectionable," they intimate that video games are still primarily for children. That they are still not meant for adults. Like the Comics Code before it, I don't think we're going to see any sort of serious advancement from a social perspective on this until major publishers tell the ESRB to pound sand and start releasing titles exclusively without vetting them to the current cultural whims of the ESRB or any other ratings board.
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Randy Pitchford President, Gearbox Software3 years ago
You're going to use anecdotal evidence as a means to undermine actual evidence from the FTC? That's not even a LITTLE realistic.
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Diana Hsu Product Manager, Free-to-Play, Big Fish Games3 years ago
I don't know what store you went to, but at the Gamestop I worked at we didn't sell M rated games to kids. More often a mom would come in and buy the game for her kid -- I'd tell her why the game was rated M, but they always bought the game anyway. :/
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Shehzaan Abdulla Translator/QA 3 years ago
[...] why were video games singled out? Because of the erroneous association in the minds of so many that they were a diversion for juveniles, that they could never hold any sort of literary or artistic value beyond mere twitch entertainment
To be fair, the videogame industry is sort of guilty of playing directly into that. Almost every game released today falls into one of two camps: Those that make a show of having literary or artistic value (and don't) and those that don't make a show of it and simply revel in their gamey-ness.

I've played exceptions (Policenauts, Ever 17, The Last of Us) but they are just that, exceptions.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 3 years ago
I got carded for a game at Gamestop at 35. The little shit literally refused to sell it to me without ID

II may look young, but come on.

If anything, the carding is gratuitously strict. This isn't booze.

Of course, now armed with their own debit card, or their parents credit cards, such I'd checks are ABIUT to be obsolete
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany3 years ago
I actually look at [Hot Coffee] as a relatively proud moment. For us, it showed that the system worked.
As a person that often takes care of age rating checks (It's a topic that always interested me), I would say that the problem with ESRB is not that the system doesn't work;The problem with the ESRB starts when you care more about two persons having sex over two persons blowing each other heads with a shotgun. In my opinion, when you get to that point it's not your system but your morals what is not working as it should...

Sure they did a good job in general, no argument there, but I think their priorities still need some rework if you ask me.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Alfonso Sexto on 17th September 2014 8:26am

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Steve Wetz Reviewer/Assistant Editor, Gamer's Glance3 years ago
To answer the multiple questions concerning my assertion that retail chains don't strictly police ESRB standards,

Several places around the United States. First as a military brat, when the ESRB was created, then throughout my professional career, which also requires me to travel frequently, both domestically and abroad. And I've never even seen anyone carded for purchasing a video game, much less been carded myself.

As for Hot Coffee, what a non-event. It got the ESRB's attention because the media got ahold of it, but if anything all that was going on was dry humping. Everyone still had their clothes on. Skinimax this was not. But again, the ESRB fulfilled its function of preventing government intervention by doing something about it, and pretty much everyone already had their copy of San Andreas at this point.
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Jason A Bentley Owner, Hemlock Games3 years ago
The most recent FTC secret shopper report starts out like this:

"A Federal Trade Commission undercover shopper survey found that video game retailers continue to enforce age-based ratings, while movie theaters have made marked improvement in box office enforcement.

Only 13 percent of underage shoppers were able to purchase M-rated video games, while a historic low of 24 percent were able to purchase tickets to R-rated movies."

http://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2013/03/ftc-undercover-shopper-survey-entertainment-ratings-enforcement
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Barrie Tingle Live Producer, Maxis3 years ago
@Jeff, I nearly got refused a sale by Woolworths (when they existed in the high street)
Their reason, the game had a PEGI 3+ rating and I was "too old to buy it". I had to explain to the lady what the ratings were before she let me buy it.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 3 years ago
Where I live Gamestop, Best Buy, Walmart, Target and Toys R Us regularly check ID's before selling M rated video games. At Target they won't even sell you the game unless they can scan the back of your license. I'm sure there are places that are more laxed such as the already mentioned indie game stores but most mainstream video game stores around here do an excellent job of keeping M rated games out of the hands of minors...until their parents come in and buy the game for them anyway. But you really can't blame the store clerks for that.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 3 years ago
@Paul

It goes shoes how unnecessary these ratings systems really are. The fact that I have seen exactly ONE parent refuse their kid an M rated game when informed of it's content, tells me that the only people who care are a very small subset parents don't read the ratings, they don't pay attention to them, Junior wants call of Duty, buff said.

I really want to know what theaters allowed kids into R rated films, because I had to go into the city to find one when I was 14-17.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany3 years ago
@Barrie: I don't think PEGI should be made responsible for that lady having no idea what that rating means.
Still (provably no need to point it out, but just in case) PEGI and ESRB are different embodiments that are quite different one from the other in both moral code, certification standards, and guidelines.
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