The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) was a focus for criticism at the June 14 hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives entitled "Violent and Explicit Video Games: Informing Parents and Protecting Children." Held in the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, & Consumer Protection and headed up by Representative Cliff Stearns, accusations of leniency in defining questionable content in video games were directed at ESRB President Patricia Vance. ESRB, responsible for assigning parental guidance ratings to video games, released a testimony of defense.
"ESRB commissions independent research on an annual basis to measure parental awareness, use and agreement with the ratings. Our most recent studies found that 83% of parents with children who play video games are aware of the ratings, and 74% use them regularly when choosing games. Another study found that parents agreed with the ratings assigned or thought them 'too strict' nearly 90% of the time," began Vance in the testimony. The testimony continued on to suggest support from the National PTA and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
The hearing particularly questioned ESRB's rating system. The testimony thoroughly described the rating system, which has been voluntarily but also universally adopted by the video game industry. "Over 30 different content descriptors are currently employed by the ESRB rating system. They span various categories of concern to parents, including but not limited to violence, language, suggestive or sexual content, gambling and use of controlled substances." ESRB insists that although violent video games usually receive the most media attention, the majority of games rated by ESRB are appropriate for children. In 2005, 50% of games rated by ESRB were rated E (Everyone), 12% were rated E10+ (Everyone ages 10 and up), 24% were rated T (Teen), and 12% were rated M (Mature) out of 1,133 ratings. Interestingly, ESRB pointed out that not one M (Mature) game made it to the Top 10 bestseller list, despite publicity behind inappropriate content in games.
Another concern from the hearing called out ESRB's rating process, which identified publishers as key players in the ratings. "ESRB game raters are recruited from one of the most culturally diverse populations in the world -- New York City. The raters are all adults and are not required to be gamers themselves... Our raters have no ties to the video game industry, and typically have experience with children," stated the testimony.
"Prior to a game being released to the public, game publishers submit a detailed written questionnaire to the ESRB, often with supplements (such as lyric sheets, scripts, etc.), specifying exactly what pertinent content will be in the final version of the game." Publishers are also required to videotape capture any pertinent content, including any content that is not coded to be playable but will exist in the final game code. ESRB recently had to re-rate the top-selling game Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion due to its failure to disclose pertinent, locked-out content. ESRB references this situation as a sign of ESRB's willingness to forcefully ensure accurate and reliable ratings.
Along with discrediting accusations from the National Institute on Media and the Family, ESRB stressed its involvement in watching over advertising and marketing, supporting retailers, and its consumer outreach and education. "We take great pride in our work and the service we provide to parents and other consumers of computer and video games," the testimony concluded.