In an article by Jonathan Homes after his weekly segment, “Talking to women about video games”, he discusses how the ESRB has failed in helping parents and consumers by properly dividing games into groups that properly describe the content that the games have in them. As I read the article, there was no proof or evidence backing up this claim that the ESRB wasn’t doing its “job”. Last I checked, Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 both got M ratings while Super Mario 3D received an E10. Now whether letting a minor play Modern Warfare or Battlefield is good or bad is a whole different argument altogether, so for right now, let’s focus on the ESRB supposedly “failing” to do their job.
The Entertainment Software Ratings Board, aka ESRB, is self-regulatory organization that gives ratings to games and enforces industry adopted guidelines for video game software for the North American region. Its job is to make sure that the right rating is reflected on software based on its content. It gives each game a rating symbol that is clearly displayed on the front of the box and a description of the content that’s in the game. It is a tool that consumers can use to determine if a game is appropriate for their children to play or not. It is not their job to “deter people from the ‘wrong’ age groups from playing the ‘wrong’ games”. It is up to the parents to decide if little Johnny or Susie should be playing a game. Let me repeat that: IT IS THE PARENT’S JOB TO DECIDE. When Holmes mentions that the ESRB isn’t properly describing the content it left me wondering if he meant the early days of the ESRB or on the back of game boxes in this generation? If it was the former, then yes, there weren’t proper descriptors other than violence, drug use, language etc. In fact they started before the age of the Internet. If he meant the latter, a quick visit to the ESRB official website will not only reiterate the descriptions, but will give a brief paragraph or so on why the game received the rating and give examples. Now let’s take a look at an industry that has a similar rating system…..the movie industry.
The movie industry goes by the rating system that is set forth by the MPAA, the classification & ratings administration or CARA. Its job, much like the ESRB, is to inform movie patrons and consumers about the contents of the movie while still keeping intact the creative freedoms of filmmakers. And just like the ESRB, each movie poster, title card, and DVD box there is a rating symbol with descriptors. But what if a parent wants to see why a movie got the rating it has and why it has the descriptors it has? It would make sense that a visit to the MPAA’s rating site filmratings.com, and read the info. It does make sense, if it was like that. When looking up a movie on the site it just gives the rating symbol and the descriptors. No short paragraphs explaining why it received the rating. No spoiler free examples of the instances the descriptors pop up in the movie other than the definitions that we’ve all come to recognize. If a movie is R only because it has harsh language, do we question why it’s rated R? How about films that have gratuitous sex and violence that received an R rating after being edited? Do we question how it got knocked down to an R? Furthermore, do we question why edits were needed in the first place? Most of the time we don’t, we just accept the rating. Does this mean that the CARA failed the general public? No, it just means that it is flawed and needs to be amended to fit the current generation of films. But that doesn’t make the ESRB perfect. It, too, has it flaws and remedies that with making sure that store partners are familiar with ESRB guidelines.
Once the ESRB hands down the ratings and that letter gets stamped onto the front of the game box, it is shipped off to retailers worldwide to be sold and distributed to the masses. Their main job is done and it’s off to rate the next game, while store associates attempt to sell said game. What most people don’t know is that the ESRB has a second job; teaching the associates and various store partners about the ESRB and explaining it to parents. I worked at a Game Crazy for about a year and a half and one of the videos (besides a safety and a hilarious sales video) was a video about the ESRB and how it works. After watching that 10 to 15 minute video and reading a pamphlet about the ESRB, we were given a test that game sample situations in advising customers about game ratings and not letting minors buy games not suitable for them. If we failed the test more training was given until we passed. Afterwards, we signed a document saying that we are knowledgeable with ESRB guidelines and would help customers with understanding the rating system. If there was a failure to comply or we were caught selling a minor a rated M game, the store and the person who sold the game would be fined, and the employee would be fired.
The store didn’t have to include the ESRB training and the ESRB didn’t have to provide the training material. But they did. And it was up to us to make sure that customers understood what games they were buying for their kids. If the parent still buys the rated M game for their kid, that’s their responsibility and problem, not mine. Yet customers still insisted that it was my fault that little Johnny learned what blow was and ran over hookers in his game. “Ma’am, I tried to explain to you the content of the game and even showed you what to expect by reading content descriptors on the back cover of the box. It was your choice to introduce him to hookers and blow,” I once told a customer. She just glared at me, knowing I was in the right, traded in the game bought something else that was overpriced, and stormed off. Now as for the Hollywood Video side of the store, when a customer would ask if a video was alright for their children to watch, the associate would just say yes or no based on the rating on the box. The customer wouldn’t question why and would either pick a different video or rent the one they had asked about.
With everything that has been said about the ESRB, has it really failed in providing the consumer with information about what games they are buying for their children? No, it has not, but that doesn’t mean that the system is perfect. The video game industry is still young and growing and the ESRB itself is still young and has a long way to grow and mature alongside the video games it rates. This generation of parents should have no excuse to check out what content is in the games that their children play. In this day and age of social media and advancements in how we interact with the makers of the products we buy, information such as the terms the ESRB uses to rate the games are widely available. Hell, they could speak to developers themselves through Facebook and Twitter. It’s not like in the past where only the press could get information before the release of a game. The industry is doing its job and so is the ESRB. Even store employees are doing their jobs, but are parents doing theirs?