The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) are a self-regulatory organization that applies and enforces ratings, advertising guidelines, and online privacy principles for computer and video games and other entertainment software in the United States and Canada (officially adopted by individual provinces 2004-2005). It was established in 1994 by the Interactive Digital Software Association. By early 2003, it had rated over 8,000 titles submitted by 350 video game publishers. Many believe that the ESRB may promote media restriction, while others think that it is necessary for software to have content ratings. The decision to found the ESRB was influenced by the graphic "fatality" killing moves of Mortal Kombat and other controversial video games depicting violent or sexual situations at the time, and by pressure from the United States government.
The ESRB applies ratings to games based on their content, similar to the motion picture rating systems used in many countries. Their aim is to aid consumers in determining a game's content and suitability. A game's rating is displayed on its box, the media, in advertisements and on game web sites.
The rating system is voluntary, and companies do not have to submit a game for rating before selling it. However, almost all game publishers in the United States use the system.
The rating has two parts: rating symbols and content descriptors. The rating symbols are usually found on the lower right or the lower left hand corner on the front of the box, they suggest what age group the game is best suited for. The content descriptors are found on the back of the box, usually in the lower left or right hand corner, they describe particular content elements that may be of interest or concern.
The symbols the ESRB uses are stylized depictions of alphabetical letters meant to convey at a glance a game's suitability. Although they were originally white with a black outline (as seen in the K-A rating logo), the rating letters have been displayed as entirely black letters (in order to be more legible) since the later part of 1999. Historic criticism of this ratings system has centered on its vague definitions of age groups and reliance on seemingly arbitrary lettering systems. Below is a table explaining the ESRB ratings system, with descriptions of what each letter represents.
|EC — Early Childhood: Contains content that may be suitable for ages 3 and older. Contains no material that parents would find inappropriate. Games that fall under this rating are specifically intended for young children and are usually educational in nature. However, some educational games with more complex problems (Such as the Dr. Brain series) may be rated E.|
|E — Everyone: Contains content that may be suitable for ages 6 and older. Titles in this category may contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language. It is often likened to the MPAA's "G" rating. It was known as K-A (Kids - Adults) until 1998.|
|E10+ — Everyone 10 and older: (Also known as Preteen) Contains content that may be suitable for ages 10 and older. Titles in this category may contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language, minimal and/or infrequent blood and/or minimal suggestive themes. Added to the ESRB ratings icons on March 2nd, 2005. Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat was the first game to receive this rating. Super Smash Bros. Melee and The Incredibles could possibly have had this rating if they were released after that date. This rating is often likened to the MPAA's "PG" Rating.|
|T — Teen: Contains content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, mild sexual content, minimal blood and/or infrequent use of strong language. It is often likened to the MPAA's "PG-13" rating.|
|M — Mature: Contains content that may be suitable for ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, and/or strong language inappropriate for young audiences. It is often likened to the MPAA's "R" rating, and is the video game equivalent. Many retailers (such as Wal-Mart) have a policy of not selling games with this rating to minors without parental presence and approval.|
|AO — Adults Only: Contains content that is suitable only for adults. Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity. This is often compared to the MPAA's "NC-17" rating because of the similar age limit and amount of restrictions that are placed on sales. As of 2006, there are 22 AO-rated products, most of which are available on Windows and Apple Macintosh computers, as well as the Phillips CD-i. The AO rating is a subject of heated controversy because of the extreme restrictions it puts on game sales. Notably, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was re-rated AO due to the release of the "Hot Coffee" hack. Note: After the code in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was patched on the PC, a second edition was released with the old "Mature" rating.|
|RP — Rating Pending: Product has been submitted to the ESRB and is awaiting final rating. This symbol appears only in advertising prior to a game's release.|
Grand Theft Auto game ratings
The ESRB have rated GTA games ranging from T (Teen) to AO (Adults only). Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was famously re-rated following the Hot Coffee incident, where its M rating was removed and changed to AO. A 2nd edition of the game was released shortly after, and the game regained it's M rating.
The GTA series is rated as follows:
- Grand Theft Auto 1 - M (rated T for Game Boy Color)
- Grand Theft Auto: London 1969 - M
- Grand Theft Auto 2 - T (rated M for PC and Dreamcast)
- Grand Theft Auto III - M
- Grand Theft Auto: Vice City - M
- Grand Theft Auto Advance - M
- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - M (re-rated AO), 2nd edition: M
- Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories - M
- Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories - M
- Grand Theft Auto IV - M
- Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars - M
Please note that the content descriptors are not always printed as shown below, they may have additional words added to further clarify the highlighted content such as "Mild Blood" and "Mild Suggestive Themes".
- Alcohol Reference — Reference to and/or images of alcoholic beverages.
- Animated Blood — Discolored and/or unrealistic depictions of blood.
- Blood — Depictions of blood.
- Blood and Gore — Depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts.
- Cartoon Violence — Violent actions involving cartoon-like or animated situations and characters. May also include violence where a character is unharmed after the action has been inflicted.
- Comic Mischief — Depictions or dialogue involving slapstick or suggestive humor.
- Crude Humor — Depictions or dialogue involving vulgar antics, including "bathroom humor".
- Drug Reference — Reference to and/or images of illegal drugs.
- Edutainment — Content of product provides user with specific skills development or reinforcement learning within an entertainment setting. Skill development is an integral part of product.
- Fantasy Violence — Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or non-human characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life.
- Informational — Overall content of product contains data, facts, resource information, reference materials or instructional text.
- Intense Violence — Graphic and realistic-looking depictions of physical conflict. May involve extreme and/or realistic blood, gore, weapons, and depictions of human injury and death.
- Language — Mild to moderate use of profanity.
- Lyrics — Mild references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol, or drug use in music.
- Mature Humor — Depictions or dialogue involving "adult" humor, including sexual references.
- Mild Lyrics — Mild references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol, or drug use in music.
- Mild Violence — Mild scenes depicting characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.
- Nudity — Graphic or prolonged depictions of nudity.
- Partial Nudity — Brief and/or mild depictions of nudity.
- Real Gambling — Player can gamble, including betting or wagering real cash or currency. (Note: This descriptor only appears on games rated Adults Only)
- Sexual Themes — Mild to moderate sexual references and/or depictions. May include partial nudity.
- Sexual Violence — Depictions of rape or other sexual acts.
- Simulated Gambling — Player can gamble without betting or wagering real cash or currency.
- Some Adult Assistance May Be Needed — Intended for very young ages, used for games rated Early Childhood.
- Strong Language — Explicit and/or frequent use of profanity.
- Strong Lyrics — Explicit and/or frequent references to profanity, sex, violence, alcohol, or drug use in music.
- Strong Sexual Content — Graphic references to and/or depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including nudity.
- Suggestive Themes — Mild provocative references or materials.
- Tobacco Reference — Reference to and/or images of tobacco products.
- Use of Drugs — The consumption or use of illegal drugs.
- Use of Alcohol — The consumption of alcoholic beverages.
- Use of Tobacco — The consumption of tobacco products.
- Violence — Scenes involving aggressive conflict.
Discontinued content descriptors
The following content descriptors have been updated and are no longer used, but they may appear on games published previously.
- Animated Blood and Gore — Cartoon or pixilated images of blood or the mutilation of body parts.
- Animated Violence — Cartoon or pixilated scenes depicting animated characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.
- Gambling — Betting-like behavior.
- Gaming — Betting-like behavior.
- Mature Sexual Themes — Provocative material, possibly including partial nudity.
- Mild Animated Violence — Mild cartoon or pixilated scenes depicting animated characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.
- Mild Realistic Violence — Mild photographic-like detailed depictions of characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.
- Reading Skills, Fine Motor Skills, Higher-Level Thinking Skills — These phrases are found only on products rated Early Childhood and indicate whether children's reading, computer, or other skills are used in these titles.
- Realistic Blood — Photographic-like detailed depictions of blood.
- Realistic Blood and Gore — Photographic-like detailed depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts.
- Realistic Violence — Photographic-like detailed depictions of characters in unsafe and/or violent situations.
- BBFC, the British media rating system
- PEGI, the European computer and video game rating system
- ELSPA, the former British computer and video game rating system, replaced by the PEGI ratings.
- USK, the German computer and video game rating system
- OFLC, the Australian media rating system
- OFLC (NZ), the New Zealand media rating system
- CERO, the Japanese computer and video game rating system