Thoughts on the E.S.R.B.


All gamers have some awareness of the E.S.R.B., if only from the black-and-white ratings on our games.  How many of us know why it exists in the first place, what their job really is—or even what the initials stand for?

Most of us think we have at least a decent grasp on what their job is—they rate games so that, ostensibly, kids don’t get their hands on overly violent or sexual games, right?  Well—kind of.  To understand the E.S.R.B.—the Entertainment Software Rating Board—we first have to examine its spiritual predecessor—Nintendo.

In the early ‘Nineties, Nintendo was competing primarily against one other company—Sega.  The ad campaigns were just this side of libelous, each side saying their console was fantastic and the other company’s no more than dirt beneath your feet.  At times it seemed like they were slapping each other in the age-old comedy routine.

Amongst many others, one chief difference was in how they treated violence, sexuality, and other potentially “objectionable” material.  Sega was, to a degree, exceedingly lenient, while Nintendo—wasn’t.

Nintendo will not approve games for the NES, Game Boy or Super NES systems […] which:

  • include sexually suggestive or explicit content including rape and/or nudity
  • contain language or depiction which specifically denigrates members of either sex
  • depict random, gratuitous, and/or excessive violence
  • depict graphic illustration of death
  • depict domestic violence and/or abuse
  • depict excessive force in a sports game beyond what is inherent in actual contact sports
  • reflect ethnic, religious, nationalistic, or sexual stereotypes of language; this includes symbols that are related to any type of racial, religious, nationalistic, or ethnic group, such as crosses, pentagrams, God, Gods (Roman mythological gods are acceptable), Satan, hell, Buddha
  • use profanity or obscenity in any form or incorporate language or gestures that could be offensive by prevailing public standards and tastes
  • incorporate or encourage the use of illegal drugs, smoking materials, and/or alcohol (Nintendo does not allow a beer or cigarette ad to be placed on an arena, stadium or playing field wall, or fence in a sports game)
  • include subliminal political messages or overt political statements

That is the list of “content guidelines” that games had to adhere to back then to be accepted by Nintendo.  (There’s an interesting article detailing the trials one developer had to go through, for an example of just how hard it was to follow those guidelines.)

Why did they have such strict guidelines?  Remember that this is the time when the furor over violence in video games was just starting, which would eventually culminate in the senate hearing in ‘Ninety-Three concerning video game violence.  Nintendo’s own games sometimes skirted the line—think about the original Super Mario Bros..  Gamers killed creatures great and small for no other reason than because they could (yes, there might have been a story-based reason, but who really knows the plot of that game, even now?  Back then, hardly anyone did), enjoying stomping ambulatory mushrooms, turtles of various colors, and more.  Of course, there, the devil was in the details—instead of saying Mario had to “kill” the Goombas, the manual stated he had to “defeat” them.

Nintendo also wanted to keep its “family-friendly” image, for better or for worse, and wanted to make sure that kids would enjoy their products and parents could feel reasonably safe with the kids playing them, again for better or for worse.  The more parents who felt alright with their kids firing up the Super Nintendo, the more parents bought games for the kids.

Now, meanwhile, again, Sega was fine with a surprising amount of things that Nintendo found “objectionable”.  This is no more clearly demonstrated than when the insanely popular arcade game Mortal Kombat was brought to the S.N.E.S. and the Sega Genesis.  On the Genesis, it was hardly touched beyond what needed to be retooled a bit to fit on the cartridge.  All of the violence, blood, and gore that gamers couldn’t spend enough money on in the arcade was present in the Genesis version.  In the S.N.E.S. version—well, that’s a different story.

Everyone’s Fatality—those cool and insanely gory moves where the opponent is decimated in delightfully bloody ways—had been stripped right out.  All of them.  Gone.  Then the blood was recolored to be “sweat”.

The game was a huge critical failure for Nintendo, while Sega’s version couldn’t have sold better.  That little episode is likely a major contributing factor, if not the catalyst, in the shifting of Nintendo’s guidelines concerning violence in video games.

So the stage was being set—video game developers and publishers alike were starting to rethink positions concerning “objectionable” material in video games, but the setting was not complete.  Enter the last, perhaps most important, addition to the set—the aforementioned senate hearing.

After name-calling, finger-pointing, and such other lovely and mature interactions between those involved, there was a general consensus as to a need for some sort of ratings system, so parents would know what to expect.  It was Sega who stepped up to the plate first, creating the Video Game Ratings Council.  That Council lasted only a year, because someone else stepped in—the E.S.R.B.

Ostensibly, the E.S.R.B. is purely voluntary—games can be submitted, or not, at the choice of the developer and/or publisher.  The E.S.R.B. has no say nor do they claim any over whether a game should be stocked on which shelves.

That’s even true—nowhere on the official site will you find anything that says a retailer “must” stock games that have been rated, or that developers and/or publishers “must” submit games for review—but as has become quite obvious in the years since its inception, the E.S.R.B. is a force to be reckoned with.

Numerous companies have killed games that the E.S.R.B. didn’t like—E.A. refused to completed game; Microsoft once went on record as saying they’d never, ever allow a game rated Adult Only to be available for the X-Box 360, following a similar move by Sony and Nintendo; the list goes on and on.  Retailers refusing to stock games above a certain rating, publishers refusing to publish games above a certain rating—and the question is “Does it help?”

When thinking on the E.S.R.B. (or any other committee that sets a standard for what is and isn’t “objectionable” in a given medium) I’m reminded when the V-Chip was a new thing.  Now it (or similarly-functioning technology) is in every television in the United States, and no one cares.  Far cry from its introduction, when there were arguments just flying around.

The biggest argument is that it could have taken responsibility away from the parents, and parents might just plop their kids in front of the televisions, to have that box be a cheap babysitter.  That argument leads to one ultimate point—wanting to protect children is fine, if an illusory ideal.  Wanting to have our children grow up happy, safe, and secure is a laudable goal, and parents deserve every aid they want.

The biggest problem is that creativity is stifled.  Publishers are afraid of high ratings because the retailers won’t sell high-rated titles; retailers are afraid of high ratings because it might damage their “image” and, thus, potentially decrease sales.

I have to take the likely unfavorable position that none of this can be laid at the feet of the E.S.R.B.  No matter what, it is voluntary.  It’s the publishers/developers and the retailers holding themselves to the rating system.  It’s not like the general public is generally unaware of the content of a new game—pick a semi-major company and you’ll have commercials left and right show what’s in the game.

Even when there aren’t many commercials, or if one is of the mentality that “the box always lie”—kids don’t absolutely need video games the day they come out.  A parent can wait a few days and read reviews, watch game play clips on YouTube.  There are options.

The reason for the stifling of creativity is related to the E.S.R.B., but it’s not the fault of the E.S.R.B.  For better or for worse, it’s ultimately nearly everyone else involved in the gaming business, from the developers, to the publishers, to the retailers—to even us older gamers.  We need to demand, loudly, more games geared for us.  If we do, if we bombard the retailers, developers, and the publishers with our requests—and, when they start to test the waters, our money—we will see more M-rated and A.O.-rated games.

The E.S.R.B., for better or for worse, is trying to keep our kids safe.  We may not agree with their tactics, their guidelines, or how their ratings are taken—but they are one of the very, very few companies who claim to “think of the children” and actually put their money where their mouth is.

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