According to an official Entertainment Software Rating Board email obtained by Gamasutra, the ESRB has announced a toughening of its stance on hidden game content, following the recent controversy over Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
The email, which has been sent to all major video game publishers, starts by noting: "Fully disclosing hidden content accessible as Easter eggs and via cheat codes has always been part of ESRB's explicitly stated requirements when submitting games to be rated. In the July 20 public announcement, which focused on the revocation of a specific game's rating assignment, we formally stated that any pertinent content shipped on the game disc that may be relevant to a rating must be disclosed to ESRB, even if it is not intended to ever be accessed during game play."
The ESRB goes on to explain: "Coding around scenes, images, or similar elements that might be pertinent to a rating assignment does not render this content irrelevant from a ratings standpoint. If a publisher wishes to "edit out" pertinent content from a final product, it must remove the content from the disc altogether. If that is not feasible, the pertinent content must be disclosed to the ESRB during the rating process so it can be taken into account in the assignment of a rating."
Most interestingly, the ESRB has announced, with the support of its Board of Directors, a request that all game publishers complete a comprehensive review of all games launched since September 1, 2004. This internal publisher-run audit is intended to determine if non-playable, pertinent content, not previously disclosed to the ESRB, remains in the final code on the discs released to the public.
Publishers must inform the ESRB of any possible issues regarding hidden content by January 9, 2006, and the ratings board may re-rate titles if any of this content changes the potential rating for the game.
The email then specifies: "If you fail to notify us of previously undisclosed, non-playable, pertinent content by January 9, and such content becomes playable through a subsequent authorized or unauthorized release of code to unlock it, rendering the original rating assignment inaccurate, punitive in addition to corrective actions may result." It is as yet unclear exactly what punitive actions the ESRB may sanction, or is capable of carrying out.
Finally, the ESRB addresses third-party 'mod' content which could potentially change the game's suitability, but was not inserted by the game's developer, commenting: "ESRB remains concerned about third party modifications that undermine the accuracy of the original rating, and we are exploring ways to maintain the credibility of the rating system with consumers in light of modifications of this nature."
The ESRB rating system currently works by publishers submitting a detailed questionnaire alongside videotaped footage of "the most extreme content and an accurate representation of the context" for each game. An updated ESRB 'pertinent content' guide for publishers also mentioned in the email reminds those submitting footage to include, alongside obvious information on the violent and sexual content in the game, less obvious details, including "rewards, punishment, and penalties for certain player behavior, such as ending the game if the player attacks civilians", and details on "sound effects, including those associated with pain, death, explosions, weapons, sexual activity, and bodily functions."