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Ratings Systems: An Overview

A brief comparison of ratings systems currently in use around the world

In light of the recent Byron Review recommendations, GamesIndustry.biz is presenting this brief comparison of various ratings systems currently in place around the world.

Entertainment Software Ratings Bureau (US/Canada)

The ESRB was established in 1994 following a series of Congressional hearings concerning violence in games such as Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. It is not run by the government, but is a self-regulatory agency that applies and enforces videogame ratings.

Current Ratings:

  • E: Suitable for all ages (replaced the prior "K-A" rating)
  • E10+: Recommended for kids 10 years of age and older
  • T: Recommended for teens and older
  • M: Recommended for mature audiences, 17 years of age and older
  • AO: Adults only.

Content Descriptors:

The ESRB also uses 29 different content descriptors on the back of the game packaging, including terms such as Blood and Gore, Use of Alcohol, Suggestive Themes and Partial Nudity.

Enforcement:

The ESRB does not currently have any legal authority to implement or enforce retailer sales policies with respect to computer and videogames. Most large US retailers have policies that prevent the sale of sell M-rated games to minors.

Publishers of games rated by the ESRB are legally bound, by contract, to disclose all pertinent content in their game. If a company is found not to have completely disclosed pertinent content, the ESRB can take actions such as the revocation of the original rating and the imposition of sanctions, including monetary fines.

Where warranted in order to ensure compliance with its directives, ESRB can refuse to rate a game altogether.

Issues:

Although some computer software has received the "AO" rating, console manufacturers do not currently allow such content on their systems and most large US retailers have policies against carrying software with an "AO" rating.

Several attempts have been made by US states and cities to apply criminal penalties to retailers who sell certain games to minors, but to date all such legislation has been struck down as unconstitutional.

Computer Entertainment Rating Organisation (Japan)

CERO was established in Japan in 2002 as a branch of the Computer Entertainment Supplier's Association and is an officially recognised non-profit organisation. Prior to a 2006 revamp, the CERO ratings used numbers recommending the appropriate ages: 12, 15, and 18.

Current Ratings:

  • A: Suitable for all ages
  • B: Must be at least 12 years of age
  • C: Must be at least 15 years of age
  • D: Must be at least 17 years of age
  • Z: Must be at least 18 years of age

Content Descriptors:

For games that receive anything other than an "A" rating, CERO uses 9 different content descriptors on the back of the game packaging such as Sexual Content, Horror, Gambling, and Use of Drugs.

Enforcement:

The A-D ratings are advisory only. The "Z" rating is legally restricted and regulated by the Japanese government.

Issues:

The current "Z" rating followed the decision by two Japanese prefectures to restrict access to Grand Theft Auto III - published in Japan by Capcom - in their territories, fining retailers who sold the game to anyone under the age of 18.

Pan European Game Information (UK/Europe)
British Board of Film Classification (UK)

ELSPA's voluntary age ratings system, introduced in 1994, was succeeded by PEGI in 2003. PEGI was developed by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe and is used in 30 countries.

While videogames are generally exempt from the Video Recordings Acts, those games which depict certain sexual and/or violent activities must be submitted to the British Board of Film Classification for ratings consideration.

Current PEGI Ratings:

  • 3+: Suitable for ages 3 and up
  • 7+: Suitable for ages 7 and up
  • 12+: Suitable for ages 12 and up
  • 16+: Suitable for ages 16 and up
  • 18+: Suitable for ages 18 and up

These ratings vary slightly in Portugal (which uses 4+ and 6+ instead of 3+ and 7+) and Finland (which uses 11+ and 15+ instead of 12+ and 16+).

Current BBFC Ratings:

  • U: Suitable for ages 3 and up
  • PG: Suitable for ages 7 and up
  • 12: Suitable for ages 12 and up
  • 15: Suitable for ages 15 and up
  • 18: Suitable for ages 18 and up

Content Descriptors:

PEGI uses 9 different icons to describe content such as Bad Language, Gambling, Sex, and Violence. The BBFC also describes content using text such as Strong Bloody Violence, Horror and Use of Strong Language.

Enforcement:

Participation in PEGI is voluntary at the discretion of the game developer. The ratings are not legally enforceable.

Developers who choose not to have their games rated under PEGI must have them rated by the BBFC. Publishers may also submit a game for classification even if they are not required to.

BBFC ratings are legally binding, with penalties imposed on retailers who sell the games to customers who do not meet the age requirements. If the BBFC refuses to rate a game, it effectively bans that game from sale anywhere in the UK.

Issues:

After the BBFC refused to certify Rockstar's Manhunt 2 in 2007, the publisher appealed the decision and the BBFC was later reversed by its own Video Appeals Committee.

As a result of the dispute, the UK Prime Minister asked Dr Tanya Byron to assess the effectiveness of existing measures to help prevent children from being exposed to inappropriate material in videogames. Byron's review, released last week, has recommended a single age ratings system with a recognisable set of symbols similar to the film industry. It also recommends lowering the statutory requirement for game ratings to age 12.

Some developers have publicly declared their support for PEGI over the BBFC and are concerned that UK developers will have to comply with two different systems - the BBFC for the UK and PEGI for the remainder of Europe.

Office of Film and Literature Classification (Australia)

The OFLC is a statutory body providing administrative support for the Classification Board charged with rating films, computer games and publications. The Classification Board was established in 1995. In 2006, it was announced that the policy and administrative functions of the OFLC would become part of the Attorney-General's department.

Current Ratings:

  • G: Suitable for all ages
  • PG: Parental guidance is recommended
  • M: Mature audiences only (formerly M15+)
  • MA 15+: Must be at least 15 years of age

Content Descriptors:

The OFLC does not currently use content descriptors.

Enforcement:

The G, PG, and M ratings are advisory only. The "MA 15+" rating is a legal restriction. Consumers under the age of 15 need the supervision of an adult guardian to purchase, rent, or exhibit the restricted content.

By refusing to classify a videogame, the OFLC effectively makes it illegal to purchase or import the game into Australia.

Issues:

Although films and videogames are both rated by the OFLC, films have two additional rating categories which are not applicable to videogames - R18+ and X18+ (the latter of which applies to pornography).

Games which exceed the MA 15+ rating are currently refused classification, which means that even adults are unable to purchase and play them. This has led to a debate over the need for an R 18+ category for games.

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