Video Game Content Rating Systems
Video game content rating systems are designed to be standardized systems serving the purpose of classifying video games based on their suitability for target audiences. The body responsible for the regulation varies from country to country and follows standards set by that specific region. Some of these regulatory systems are independent, while others are run or guided by their government. Given the vast amount of national rating boards, some developers have called for an international regulatory body to be formed to standardize these ratings on a global scale.  In response, the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC), was introduced seeking to become the sole rating board globally, while still reflecting the unique cultural differences among nations and regions.  However, it is important to note that only countries and regions that are not represented by a participating rating authority recognize the legitimacy of this system.
- 1 History
- 2 Ethical Concerns
- 3 Controversies
- 4 Popular Rating Systems
- 5 References
In 1993 Sen. Joseph Lieberman sponsored legislation that would force the video game industry to create a rating system to inform parents of game content. Lieberman would take a strong stance saying in a news conference, “We’re talking about video games that glorify violence and teach children to enjoy inflicting the most gruesome forms of cruelty imaginable.” He pushed further, going as far as to argue that these games lead to real crimes.  Consequently, representatives of the video game industry were called to a congressional hearing of the issue in December of 1993. However, prior to the hearing, Sega decided to create its own rating system called the Videogame Rating Council. Officially launching in May 1993, it was the first rating system used by a major publisher in the United States and was heavily influenced by the motion picture industry rating system. The eventual hearing would result in the formation of the Video Game Ratings Act of 1994, which would have been a federal game rating commission. However, the video game industry instead chose to create its own rating system, thus killing the need for the bill. The Interactive Digital Software Association, later known as the Entertainment Software Association, was formed to tackle the matter. Later in 1994, a coalition of game publishers, under the Interactive Digital Software Association, proposed to the United States Congress their idea for the national game rating board to be created. It was accepted and the ESRB was made official on Sept. 1, 1994. The rating system launched with 5 ratings: EC(Early Childhood), K-A(Kids to Adults), T(Teen), M(Mature), and AO(Adults Only). Other countries followed suit, with the Pan-European Game Information rating system being created in Europe in 2003  and the Computer Entertainment Rating Organization in Japan in 2002.
Self-Reporting of Dangerous Content and Lack of Playtesting
The process by which rating boards give ratings has been called into question. For example, in North America, the Entertainment Software Rating Board rates video games through two methods. A questionnaire that asks developers to self-report all potentially harmful content. In addition, developers must send a video showing typical gameplay and anything that might affect the rating. However, due to this, many in online communities feel that this system could be abused and take issue with the fact that the ESRB does not playtest the game. It should be noted that the ESRB does occasionally playtest the games to verify content and has the power to force developers to recall games from shelves if the rating changes. There have been a few notable changes to games' ratings after release, often coming after public outcry from hidden features within games. The fourth entry in the popular Elder Scrolls series, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was one such game after it was discovered there was a hidden topless version of female characters. Similarly the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had its rating changed from Mature to Adult Only after it was discovered there was a built-in sexually explicit mini-game available in the game's files through modification. This discovery led to public backlash and former senator Hillary Clinton calling for an investigation into the game by the Federal Trade Commission. After a full investigation by the Entertainment Software Rating Board it was decided that the game would be changed to an Adult Only rating and therefore would not be available for sale in retail stores. Despite these examples, many still feel certain games have received improper ratings and that playtesting would be beneficial.
Industry Self-Regulation and Potential Conflict of Interest
Officially the Entertainment Software Rating Board operates as the non-profit, self-regulatory body for the North American video game market. It is overseen by the Entertainment Software Association that's membership includes the majority of the major publishers of the video game industry. Membership includes but is not limited to: 505 Games, Activision Blizzard, Bandai Namco Entertainment, Bethesda Softworks, Capcom, CI Games, Disney Interactive Studios, Electronic Arts, Epic Games, Gearbox Software, GungHo Online Entertainment, Intellivision Entertainment, Koch Media, Konami, Legends of Learning, Microsoft, Mythical, Nacon, Natsume, NCSoft, Nexon, Nintendo, Nvidia, Playstation, Rebellion Developments, Riot Games, Sega, Six Foot, Square Enix, Take-Two Interactive, Tencent, THQNordic, Ubisoft, Warner Bros. Games, and Wizards of the Coast. Given that the industry's regulation is handled by the industry itself, many online users fear that the industry isn't properly regulating itself due to this conflict of interest and profit motivation. The popularization of loot boxes (considered by many to be a form of gambling) increased these concerns. The industry makes a tremendous profit from this feature, one study from Juniper Research cites that users will be spending $50 billion by 2022. Consumers have often raised concerns about these practices, while the Entertainment Software Rating Board has taken very few measures to alleviate these concerns. Given this, some have called for external regulation as opposed to continued self-regulation by the industry, citing that the industry has too much profit to gain from lack of regulation. Similarly, a representative of the International Game Developers Association stated during an FTC workshop, "Unfortunately, it seems that the industry is having trouble being ethical when there’s profit to be made. If someone cannot be trusted to not exploit someone else, then we must place down a regulation to protect others.”
Freedom of Speech and Censorship
Attempts to enforce video game rating systems by law have often been met with criticism in the United States. Some feel as though such a law forcing these restrictions on the industry and retailers would be violating their freedom of speech. This viewpoint has been supported numerous times at the state and national level of law. In 2011 the Supreme Court held the Brown vs Entertainment Merchants Association case, which found that prohibiting the sale of video games, rated as "violent" by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, to minors was a violation of the First Amendment. This meant moving forward, video games would be entitled to the protections associated with the First Amendment. Interestingly, during the 1993 movement for the creation of a rating system, Sen. Joseph Lieberman stated that while he would prefer that to ban violent games outright, he acknowledged that they protected under the constitution as free speech. Despite this, many retail stores and console manufacturers regularly ban the sale of ESRB rated Adult Only games. This has drawn criticism for essentially killing the sales potential of any Adult Only game and limiting the creativity of the video game industry.
Lack of Rating System for Digital Products
Prior to 2015, there was a lack of ESRB ratings on mobile and digital-only games. Since submission to the Entertainment Software Rating Board is voluntary; there was no need for indie devs to submit their games if they didn't plan for a retail release. In response to this, the Entertainment Software Rating Board announced it would put its rating on the Google Play Store in 2015. However, Apple refused to adopt this, instead choosing to use their own system. Many digital game stores like Steam do not have consistent age rating systems and instead include the PEGI or ESRB rating only if the game had a physical release. Many indie games can escape needing to be rated this way. As a supplement, Steam includes "tags" that the public can add to describe the game.
Effectiveness of Rating Systems
Since its inception, the Entertainment Software Rating Board has faced criticism both for not doing enough and for doing too much. After Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas received a congression hearing for its inclusion of sexual graphic scenes, the Entertainment Software Rating Board and Federal Trade Commission both received immersive criticism by members of Congress for their lack of punishing the games developers. In a quote by House Representative Joe Barton, he stated he was "Fed up with games like Grand Theft Auto being marketed under false pretenses." Some people have said that the Entertainment Software Rating Board often stops short of giving games an Adult Only rating, even when the game deserves one. On the other side, some have criticized the Entertainment Software Rating Board for being too harsh on titles. Whether parents even use game ratings has been called into question. In one survey conducted in the UK of 1221 parents of children under the age of 17, 64% admitted to not checking the PEGI game logo when buying games. Of those parents, 55% felt the age restriction rating did not matter. However, in a 2007 report by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the organization claims that 85% of American parents use the ESRB rating system regularly when buying games. Interestingly, the report also indicated 91% of parents felt the age rating mattered.
Popular Rating Systems
Australian Classification Board
The Australian Classification Board handles the rating of video games in Australia. The board is government-controlled and part of the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, and Communications. Australia has become infamous for banning games, with popular titles such as Fallout 3 and Mortal Kombat being banned from sale.
|Games with General (G) Classification are suitable for everyone. All content such as language or themes is very mild in impact.|
|Games with Parental Guidance (PG) Classification are not recommended for use by people aged 15 or younger without guidance from a parent. The games are considered mild but may contain content that could upset children. This rating is advisory and not legally binding.|
|Games with Mature (M) Classification are not recommended for use by people aged 15 or younger at all. These games' content often includes violence or themes that require maturity. This rating is advisory and not legally binding.|
|Games with Mature Accompanied (M15+) Classification are banned from being sold to or played by anyone under the age of 15 without their legal guardian present. These games contain strong content such as violence, sex scenes, or drug use.|
|Games with Restricted (R18+) Classification are banned from being sold to or played by anyone under the age of 18. These games' content is considered of the highest impact and may be offensive to adult audiences.|
Computer Entertainment Rating Organization
The Computer Entertainment Rating Organization was introduced as Japan's new rating system on October 1, 2002. Unlike North America's Entertainment Software Rating Board, the Computer Entertainment Rating Organization's raters/judges are not members of the video game industry. They are instead members of the public between the ages of 20 and 60 in various occupations.
|Games with a rating of Cero A are meant for all ages. Any content that could lead to an age restriction is avoided in these games.|
|Games with a rating of Cero B are meant for ages 12 and above. Only content suitable for the 12+ demographic is included in these games.|
|Games with a rating of Cero C are meant for ages 15 and above. Only content suitable for the 15+ demographic is included in these games.|
|Games with a rating of Cero D are meant for ages 17 and above. This typically indicates adult content is present.|
|Games with a rating of Cero Z are meant for ages 18 and above. Adult-only content is present and this game can not be sold or distributed to anyone under the age of 18.|
Entertainment Software Rating Board
The Entertainment Software Rating Board serves as the video game content rating system of The United States, Canada, and Mexico. The Entertainment Software Rating Board was officially founded on September 16, 1994. It contained members of all the largest game companies of the time and introduced a regulatory body to the North American video game industry. Its primary function is to rate games and reveal what kind of content is present in them. In doing so, it theoretically allows parents to make decisions on what kinds of games their children play and keep certain games out of younger audiences' hands. However, its effectiveness is heavily debated. The Entertainment Software Rating Board claims they have the highest rating enforcement of any industry and stop 87% of underage individuals from purchasing mature games. However, others argue that the ratings actually encourages young kids to want those games since they view it as forbidden. A study published in the Journal of The American Academy of Pediatrics supports this claim and found that an 18+ rating increases desire to play the game in children younger than the age rating. In 2020, the Entertainment Software Rating Board became the first rating organization to start labeling when in-game purchases (loot boxes) appear in games. The Pan-European Game Information Board announced they would do the same immediately after. 
|Rated E for everyone denotes a game that is suitable for all age groups. Such a game may include minimum cartoon, fantasy, and mild violence. Only minimum mild language can be used.|
|Rated E 10+ denotes a game that is suitable for ages 10 and up. Such a game may include more cartoon, fantasy, and mild violence than a rated E game. Mild language and some suggestive themes can also be present.|
|Rated T for teen denotes a game that is suitable for ages 13 and up. Such a game may include violence, crude humor, and suggestive themes. Minimal blood and infrequent strong language are also allowed.|
|Rated M for mature denotes a game that is suitable for ages 17 and up. Such a game may include intense violence, sexual content, and strong language. Blood and gore can also be present.|
|Rated AO denotes a game that is only suitable for adults. Such a game may include prolonged intense violence, graphic sexual content, and gambling with real currency. Some have described this rating as a "kiss of death" as retailers refuse to stock games with this rating, and due to this, developers typically avoid receiving this rating.|
International Age Rating Coalition
The International Age Rating Coalition was established in 2013. It stands alone as the only international rating system and is typically endorsed in countries without their own rating system in place. Additionally, the IARC seeks to reflect cultural differences in its ratings, seeking to address a common point of contention when international regulation is mentioned.
|Games with a rating of IARC 3+ are meant for all age groups. Some comical or fantasy violence is allowed; however, no bad language is permitted.|
|Games with a rating of IARC 7+ are meant for ages 3 and above. Such a game may include mild violence and contain images or sounds frightening for children.|
|Games with a rating of IARC 12+ are meant for ages 12 and above. Such a game may include non-graphic violence involving human-looking characters and violence against cartoon/fantasy characters. Mild language, simulated gambling, and non-graphic nudity are permitted.|
|Games with a rating of IARC 16+ are meant for ages 16 and above. Such a game may include realistic depictions of violence and criminal activity, sexual activity, and drug use.|
|Games with a rating of IARC 18+ are meant for ages 18 and above. Such a game may include graphic violence and sexual violence. Graphic sexual content, discrimination, and glamorization of illegal drug use are also permitted.|
Pan European Game Information
The Pan European Game Information age rating system serves as Europe's rating system for video games. Pan European Game Information (PEGI) was founded in 2003 to replace the various national systems in European countries. Officially PEGI operates under Belgian law, but it services the countries of Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldavia, Montenegro, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. As of 2012, the PEGI system became enforceable by law. For example, selling a PEGI 12 game to somebody under the age of 12 became a criminal action. This is in stark contrast to the ESRB system in North America which is not legally binding, though attempts have been made.
|Games with a rating of PEGI 3 are meant for all ages. No images that could scare young children should be present or any language that could be considered bad.|
|Games with a rating of PEGI 7 are meant for ages 7 and above. Contains only very mild forms of violence and may have images that could scare young children.|
|Games with a rating of PEGI 12 are meant for ages 12 and above. Might include mild bad language. Mild graphic violence towards fantasy characters and non-realistic violence towards human characters is allowed.|
|Games with a rating of PEGI 16 are meant for ages 16 and above. Violence or sexual activity is realistic. Bad language is allowed, and drug use can be shown.|
|Games with a rating of PEGI 17 are meant for ages 18 and above. Graphic and gross depictions of violence can be present. Explicit sexual activity, glorified depictions of illegal drugs, and gambling simulations are included in this category.|