How Do Video Games Get Rated?

Warning: contains cartoon violence and partial nudity.

Grand Theft Auto: Hard Core 
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Grand Theft Auto: Hard Core

Sen. Hillary Clinton has called for an investigation of the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas after hackers discovered a secret section of the game that depicts graphic sex acts. The game has a rating of “M,” for mature audiences. Clinton says the game probably deserves the more restrictive “AO,” for adults only. Where do video game ratings come from?

An industry-funded group called the Entertainment Software Rating Board. The ESRB was founded in 1994 amid chatter that the government would start to regulate game makers. Software developers aren’t required by law to submit their games to the ESRB, but many retailers only sell titles that receive a rating from the board. If a company does ask for a rating, it must comply with the rules of the ESRB or face penalties, which can include cash fines and product recalls.

When submitting a game for the board’s scrutiny, the developer fills out a questionnaire that describes potentially offensive material, especially sequences involving drugs, sex, or violence. The company must also supply the rating board with the scripts for any scenes with dialogue and material like song lyrics. The package sent to the ESRB will also include a videotape showing the game’s basic plot and each questionable scene. Such videos can be several hours long.

At least three raters watch the videotape and answer a series of questions about its content. They are more likely to be homemakers than hard-core gamers. They must be at least 21 years old and have no connection to the video game industry.

Most new games require 50 hours or more to complete, so the ESRB doesn’t play titles all the way through. For certain games, members of the board will perform a spot-check using manufacturer-provided cheat codes that allow access to higher or hidden levels. The board combines all of this information to issue a final rating and a set of official content descriptors—like “Use of Alcohol,” “Fantasy Violence,” “Partial Nudity,” and “Comic Mischief.”

The ESRB issues seven designations. They range from “EC” (Early Childhood) to “AO,” adults only. Most titles receive either an E (for children over the age of 6), or a “T” (for teens over 13). Out of thousands of games that have been reviewed, only 18 have received the AO rating—including such titles as Water Closet: The Forbidden Chamber and Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude Uncut and Uncensored.

The new Grand Theft Auto game’s M rating includes content descriptors for blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content, and drug use. The ESRB suggests that retail stores limit sales of M-rated games to those 17 and older. AO-rated games, almost all of which have the “strong sexual content” tag, are limited to those 18 and older. So, what’s the big deal if a game gets bumped up to the higher rating? Big retailers like Wal-Mart won’t stock AO-rated games; that means potentially huge revenue losses if you can’t eke out an M from the board.

Some game companies submit their product to the board repeatedly to ensure they get a desirable rating. Others send developers to New York City to meet with members of the board. The ESRB generally doesn’t say which specific scenes or dialogue should be trimmed to get a more child-friendly rating. But by speaking with the raters in person, a company’s representatives might learn, for example, that a particular character is probably a bit too busty for an “E.” [Clarification, July 18: Game developers meet with members of the rating board, not the independent “raters” who review and write reports on each game.]

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Explainer thanks James Coliz of Microsoft Game Studios, Dennis McCauley of GamePolitics.com, and Eliot Mizrachi of the Entertainment Software Rating Board.