Fortuitous Ephiphaneia #9: Trust the ESRB?

Trust the ESRB?

Do people notice the ESRB ratings that are found on video games? Better yet, do people even know what the ratings mean? Does the rating influence a decision to purchase the product? Do people automatically assume that the ratings are protecting the buyer’s best interest? How much of an influence does game violence have on the real-life development of any human?

ESRB is the abbreviated name of the Entertainment Software Rating Board that was established in 1994 as a means for the software industry to self-regulate products. According to their website (, “ESRB independently applies and enforces ratings, advertising guidelines, and online privacy principles adopted by the industry. To date, the ESRB had rated more than 8,000 titles submitted by 350 publishers.” “Additionally, the ESRB has received praise from the US Congress, leading child advocacy groups, and national retailers.”

Personally, I believe that some of the praises can be contributed to the fact that no industry-wide rating organization even existed prior to ESRB, so obviously the ESRB is going to receive a “thumbs up” just for taking some type of action. Now, that doesn’t mean that I believe that the ESRB is a bad system for regulating software. But, when the “fox is guarding the hen house” and the data collection used to determine the rating is sometimes subjective, rather than objective, there will always be some grey areas for “loop holes” and such. Therefore, I think that the current ESRB system should be used more as a suggestion rather than a concrete “law”.

One example of a “loop hole” was pointed out during a Harvard School of Public Health conducted by Dr. Kimberly Thompson and Kevin Haninger. In the study they point out that the ESRB rating has two basic inputs: clips of video footage from the game and “descriptors” of what the game includes which are written by the manufacturer. Independent reviewers then use the footage and descriptors to analyze the game and come to a consensus on the overall game rating. The problem is that some manufacturers are more detailed in their descriptors than other manufacturers. Thus, manufacturers who write vague descriptors tend to receive lower ratings by default. So, if the manufacturer just glosses over the “V” (violence) descriptor for the game then the reviewer assumes that there isn’t much violence (unless otherwise indicated by the sample game footage).

The Harvard study looked at all of the games that were rated “E”, for everybody in April of 2001 and produced the following results:
[*]Almost 60 percent contained no content description on or inside the game packaging.
[*]Of those games with no content description, 64 percent nevertheless contained intentional violence during 30 percent of playtime.
[*]Sixty percent of all E-rated games rewarded or actually required players to injure characters in order to continue playing.
[*]The presence of “cute” characters had little or no bearing on the presence of violence.
I think that it is safe to say that this study suggests that the ESRB rating is not always indicative of the actual violence that is found in games; especially since the “E” rated games should have the least violent content available.

Another area where the ESRB ratings show their subjectivity (or lack of objectivity) is in the game content. Take Diablo 2 for example. We all know what is found in D2 as far as the battles and animated graphics are concerned. Yet, the “theme” of Diablo 2 is that you are basically a “good” character hunting down demons and their minions and banishing them from the world of sanctuary. Sure, you could play the game with the mentality that you are a mercenary just in it for the loot, but you can’t kill the NPCs and the story line for the game implies that you are fighting for a noble and just cause. Regardless, the rating for Diablo 2 is M+17 (mature, must be 17 to purchase). This rating in itself is not a problem, but it seems odd that Grand Theft Auto – Vice City has the same rating when its “theme” is diametrically opposite of D2. Now, I don’t own this game but I’ve watched a few friends play it. In GTA-Vice City you steal cars, shoot cops, pick up prostitutes and then blow the girls away once you are finished with them. Obviously the game doesn’t feature model citizens.

Now, I understand that from the ESRB point of view, the player should be mature enough to comprehend what is going on in each game, thus each game received the M+17 rating. However, it is obvious that the game rating doesn’t tell you everything that you should know when deciding to purchase the game. Personally, I would like the ESRB to incorporate a better description of what themes are present. I’m sorry, but the use of ESRB descriptors like “sexual content” doesn’t really tell me anything. “Sexual Content” could refer to an old married couple that still act like newly-weds, or two strangers who met at a bar, or an incestuous rape. The first would be morally acceptable, the second one not moral but socially acceptable, and the last one a heinous crime even though it is physically the same act. When a screenwriter is trying to get agents and/or producers to read his latest and greatest masterpiece, he often has to write query letters, which include a one of two-sentence description of the entire movies theme. It is just enough information for the potential reader to know if the script is something that he/she would like to read, but it doesn’t give away any of the stories plot. I see no reason that the ESRB couldn’t do the same thing. Perhaps they assume that the manufacturer is going to tell you everything that you need to know, but if that is the case, then why is there an ESRB rating to begin with. Thus, the ESRB rating to me is just a general guideline or starting point for any decision that I might make.

I believe that the ESRB was formed primarily because of some groups that link media violence to children that behave violently. This isn’t a bad thing, but people should never assume that any organization should take the place of a parent doing some homework and talking to their kids. If people don’t want their kids playing violent video games 4 hours a day, then they shouldn’t neglect the kids and use the television, DVD player, or video games as surrogate “baby sitters”. It seems like for the past 20 or 30 years psychologists have made everyone believe that they are a “victim” of something. They would have you believe that people are completely a product of their environment. Though this is basically true of animals (reference Pavlov’s Dog experiments), it is not inherently true for human beings. We get to choose our actions and psychologists seem to forget this. If somebody approaches you at 7:30 AM and calls you a nasty name because they are having a bad day, you don’t have to be a jerk too. You have the choice to let that person influence your actions, or you can choose to smile and tell them to have a nice day anyway.

Does violence in video games promote violence in real life? I would say that it can influence it, but we still get to make a conscience decision. In science they say that for every action there is a reaction, but as humans we get to choose what that reaction will be. Beside, I’m pretty sure that people like Cain, Attila the Hun, and Jack the Ripper didn’t play many video games or watch television. Maybe if they had some better role models or parents they would have made different choices in their lives.

Disclaimer: Fortuitous Ephiphaneia is written by Drandimere (Paul J. Darling) and hosted by The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of

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