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ESRB offers an easier way to get a rating for your digital games
October 24, 2012 | By Kris Graft

The Entertainment Software Rating Board has another solution to keep up with the flood of games released every day on digital platforms.

In its continuing efforts to standardize its age and content rating tool across all kinds of video games, the ESRB announced today it would begin to extend its free voluntary rating service across all digital platforms.

The move makes it faster and easier for game developers on digital platforms to obtain ESRB ratings for their games, meaning consumers, especially parents, have more exposure to a more familiar ratings system.

"It's very important for consumers to have access to ESRB ratings for games, regardless of the platform they're using," said ESRB president Pat Vance in a phone interview. "[And] we want to provide ratings to all developers who want them."

Vance said a study done for the ESRB by Hart Research showed that 85 percent of parents are familiar with the ratings.

Here's how the new Digital Rating Services program works: Developers access a submission form via a link provided to them either after submitting their game to a digital storefront, or by registering for free with the ESRB. Then, developers fill out an online questionnaire regarding their game's content and "interactive elements" (e.g. location and sharing services), as well as exposure to user-generated content.

Following an automated calculation based on the answers on the questionnaire, a rating is immediately issued and usable by the developer to display on storefronts and marketing materials. The ESRB conducts a post-release review of submitted games.

The new streamlined digital service will first be put into place for Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation-certified devices, Nintendo eShop, Wii Shop and Windows 8. Support for additional platforms, including social and streaming, are on the way, Vance said.

With retail games, publishers submit videos and documents that would be reviewed by experts at the ESRB who would assign a content rating prior to release, but that process simply can't keep up with the digital world.

So about a year ago, ESRB sought to address efficiency issues by introducing a voluntary mobile app rating system. Today's announcement is an extension of that to all digital platforms.

"What we're trying to do is create a standard across devices that, frankly, I think developers should buy into," said Vance, "because when they market those products, they can use the ESRB rating to broadly market the age appropriateness and notifications to consumers, and consumers will get it.

"It's free for developers, which I think is important for it in order to gain broader adoption. It's quick, it's easy, it's free, so we're hopeful that developers will use it."

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Kyle Redd
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The ESRB knows its days are numbered. This is just one of probably many desperate steps they will take to try and stay relevant in the years to come, but nothing will stop the inevitable. Developers now know, without any doubt, that an ESRB rating is completely unnecessary for a successful game. And there hasn't been even a single public episode of a parent complaining about an unrated adult-oriented game that they mistakenly believed was appropriate for children.

Tom Baird
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"And there hasn't been even a single public episode of a parent complaining about an unrated adult-oriented game that they mistakenly believed was appropriate for children."

That's because pretty much all North American retail is ESRB rated (And in Europe PEGI seems equally proliferous).

Did you not pay attention to the big supreme court ruling about mature rated video game legislation last year? Or the general Fiasco that seems to occur at the launch of every GTA game? Parents and legislators are demanding more, harsher ratings, not less, and the ESRB has been our shield that has saved us from getting dumped in with Porn, where we would need to be babysat by the government.

Vin St John
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Kyle, the ESRB was created in response to a real need from consumers. Today, as Tom has noted, its moderate form of self-censorship and warning labels fulfills a vital role in protecting the industry from harsher government regulation. I agree with you that the ESRB has become less relevant now that there are so many more players in the industry (and many of them have not taken to adopting the ESRB as a standard). But it's strange that you would attempt to color them as a self-serving group that is 'desperate' to stay relevant. The ESRB isn't some parasite that relies on the industry for sustenance, it exists to serve the industry.

The ESRB is a non-profit whose existence has been largely good for the industry in the last few years. There are a lot of things in need of change within and surrounding video game ratings, and if you think that even the moderate self-imposed censorship and regulation that the ESRB embodies is going too far (free expression and all that), I can totally see where you're coming from - but I would never think to suggest that has self-serving motives, nor would I criticize them for "attempting to stay relevant."

Kyle Redd
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Alright, I was harsher than I should have been on the ESRB. I've never seen them as a "parasite" on game developers - participation is voluntary after all. And I was unaware they were a non-profit group as has now been made clear. So that was a mistake on my part. In my mind I had conflated them with other ratings groups like the MPAA, which I believe has done extraordinary damage to the artists they claim to represent (and whose faults have been thoroughly detailed by others).

However, while the ESRB did serve a valuable role in shielding the industry against government regulation in the past, I would say it's pretty clear now that developers aren't in need of that sort of protection anymore. If popular games like Hotline Miami and Binding of Isaac can now be released to wide acclaim and substantial sales without any involvement from the ESRB at all and no public outcry, then what do we need an "official" ratings system for?

And as you alluded to Vin, we now know that the presence of these game ratings organizations is going to have a clear negative impact on developer freedom and creativity (, so regardless of the good they've done till now, I'm not hesitant in the slightest to see them disappear.

E Zachary Knight
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The ESRB still holds relevance to parents though. For those of us who spend our lives neck deep in the world of gaming, the ESRB as become a relic. However, for parents looking to buy their kids some games for birthday's and Christmas, having a recognized and trusted body provide a detailed listing of potentially objectionable game content plus an age recommendation is a necessity. Sure the parents could spend a while browsing game review sites and watch videos, but that time is a waste when they could quickly cull games from the list based on simple bullet points.

Now with games being distributed digitally more and more these days, that need for parents is still there, but not being met satisfactorily. The hodgepodge of rating systems by different platforms can be confusing to some people. Having a unified system is great for all involved.

Finally, with this digital rating being free, there is no concern about adding extra costs to developers. It will also help spur adoption among developers and the respective platforms.

Michael Wenk
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You'll be screaming for something like the ESRB when the Gov't finally does come in and regulate games. And they will. One of the consequence of Brown vs Entertainment Merchants Assoc was that the ESRB rating system regulated video games keeping them from minors. If you remove the ESRB then the government will get involved.

So... be careful what you wish for.

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Kyle Redd
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"Now with games being distributed digitally more and more these days, that need for parents is still there, but not being met satisfactorily. The hodgepodge of rating systems by different platforms can be confusing to some people."

I guess I would ask if you know of any non-gaming parent who has ever complained (personally to you or another individual, not in public or to a newspaper) that they feel the many different rating systems on digital platforms are confusing or are otherwise unsatisfactory. I certainly don't.

Steam has no ratings system or guidelines whatsoever, despite carrying numerous titles that are clearly intended only for adults. Occasionally someone will pop up in some of the games' forums and ask other users for info on potentially sensitive material (a request that is nearly always answered promptly and helpfully), but I've never once seen any parent complain that they bought the game for their child and subsequently felt they were deceived as to its content. And that includes unrated titles like Binding of Isaac. That particular game contains a whole host of adult-oriented imagery and subject matter, yet on the forums the only complaints (of which were very few among hundreds of topics) came from adults who were personally offended by its irreverent attitude towards religion.

So if we're saying that the ESRB must exist so that it can serve adults who: (a) have young children, (b) are themselves generally uninformed about which games are age-appropriate (meaning they are not gamers themselves), and (c) also are not skilled enough with a web browser to be able to spend the few minutes it would take to find that information on their own, then I would argue that the drawbacks of having an all-encompassing ratings board for the industry greatly outweighs the benefits to the tiny minority of parents who meet the above criteria.

And of course this is all assuming that viewing adult content is substantively harmful to children in the first place - an idea which itself should be considered patently ridiculous at this point, unless there's been a scientific study demonstrating all of the damage seeing a bare nipple or a animated fist-fight actually does to children that I'm clearly unaware of.

E Zachary Knight
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Objectionable is a perfectly subjective term. What is objectionable to one person is not to another. That is why I qualified that phrase with "potentially" in the context of parents shopping for their kids.

On all your other points, I agree completely.


I didn't think I was arguing that the ESRB "must" exist, only that it is a good resource for parents that want to use it. It is trusted and well understood by many people. People actually like it.

As for your Steam example, how many parents do you know that rely solely on Steam for the games they buy their children? I would argue, that the more tech savvy and game oriented parent would probably use it and be more knowledgable about the games and how to find information about them.

However, when you have a parent who is buying a WiiU, 3DS or a smart phone for their child, they would probably have more confidence in a distribution system that had easily found information about the content of the games. Granted, a well done store specific rating system could very much meet that need, but adding a rating that those parents see when shopping at a retail outlet is an added benefit.

So I really don't see the benefit of taking away a tool from those that like it, especially when the implementation of said tool by game developers is free and voluntary.

Maria Jayne
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This seems contradictory to me, you can apply for a rating which exists based on your own admission. Isn't the point of a rating that it's rated by an independent adjudicator? Someone who cannot profit from such a rating or potentially submit a false report to lower the rating even if it is at a later date corrected, the rating issued is still incorrect and thus failing to achieve it's objective.

If the intent is to protect children then you cannot put that intent in the hands of those that seek to profit from the answer. I don't know who funds these ratings boards, but it seems to me if they can't find the time to actually do those ratings maybe that funding should either stop or be increased to compensate.