The Use and Abuse of the ESRB & PEGI

Posted: December 15, 2014 by craftyaggie in Technology
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Video game ratings systems vary dramatically from country to country, which causes stress on the video game world. Many countries have their own ratings systems, the majority of which are supported in some fashion by their government. Attacks based on content within a game or the ratings it received are commonly made by parents and the government, but also by producers and the gamers themselves. In my opinion if video game ratings systems are supported by the gaming community and run well, they are the best wait to ensure that games get to their intended audience.

There are two primary ratings systems that come up in discussions among American gamers: the Entertainment Software Ratings Board and the Pan-European Game Information. Both rate games in a similar fashion and on similar stakes; however, their initial rating of a game and/or content of a game can vary dramatically. Video games in the US are publicly attacked by parent groups, publishers, and government officials. The two systems greatly contrast each other and are both frequently mentioned in video game news.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) is run by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which was begun because there was no ratings system in the US, but has never been backed by the US government. The ESRB uses terms that are considered complicated as compared to other ratings systems. These terms include Early Childhood (EC), Everyone (E), Everyone over 10 (E10+), Teen (T), Mature (M17+), and Adults Only (AO).

In order to get a rating in the US, producers have to send an information packet to the ESRB. The information packet must include descriptions of anything relevant to the ratings process and include all concerning scenes on a DVD. Three raters go through the packet carefully and deliberately. Once they have decided on a rating, they notify the producer. If, after the game release, anyone disputes the rating, the ESRB raters will play the game to validate the dispute.

The Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) ratings group is run by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE) which includes more than 30 countries in agreement to support the PEGI Ratings and other projects run by the ISFE. The PEGI uses ages for their ratings to include Okay to play for all ages (OK), as well as 3, 7, 12, 16, and 18 symbols. The PEGI rates very similarly to the ESRB; however, a second set of administrative raters checks the ratings before release.

There are certain times where, due to cultural moves, games are forced to be changed to avoid getting an Adults Only or 18+ rating. Although this is expected in restrictive countries, such as China outright banning games for promoting independence, this has also happened multiple times in the countries considered “free.” Fahrenheit was released in the US as Indigo Prophecy because of a recent movie titled Fahrenheit 9/11, and required editing to some female frontal nudity which is considered safe for the 16+ rating it received under the PEGI.

Man covers his face in shame of the censorship. Mike Futter

Image 1. This is the photo that was shown to censor the video game “South Park: Stick of Truth” in Europe.

Similarly, the producers of South Park: Stick of Truth had two choices at the time of release of their game based on their TV series South Park: accept getting an 18+ rating in the PEGI and be banned in Australia and other countries, or remove the 7 scenes considered inappropriate and resubmit for a new rating. Because the AO/18+ rating is typically not accepted to be sold in normal retail locations, there would have been a potential loss in sales that producers weren’t willing to risk. The producers chose to “remove” the content by having a “censorship screen” during the unapproved scenes. This scene screen described what was supposed to occur and mocked the powers that be. (Fig. 1)

US gamers are especially affected by lawmakers. There have been many attempts over the years to create laws that would negatively impact the video game community in the US. However, this is made difficult because the ESRB is not a government-backed association. That being said, those democratically voted to represent the American people have attempted to change the video game industry multiple times. Two well-known attacks have both been featured in GameInformer, a popular non-console-specific magazine that keeps up to date on video games themselves and the news surrounding them. Featured in GameInformer January 17th, 2013 Representative Diane Franklin attempted to pass a law that would add a 1% sales tax increase in Missouri on all games rated T+. According to the bill, “the money would be used for the treatment of mental health conditions associated with exposure to violent videos games.” There are over 4,400  video game titles with a rating of E for Everyone that have violence in some way in their content decriptors.

Earlier in 2011, California Senator Leland Yee’s bill to ban the sale of violent video games to those under the age of 17 was shot down in Supreme Court. This bill would also not work due to the fact that there are T rated games, even E games, that are considered perfectly safe for kids to play that have violence as part of their content descriptors. A reaction from the writer of the second article is as follows:

Saying the courts placed profit margins above the rights of parents makes for a great sound byte, but it completely ignores the fact that mothers and fathers still have jurisdiction over the media their children are allowed to watch or play. If a parent doesn’t want his or her child to play Dead Space or Grand Theft Auto, they can explain to the child that he or she isn’t mature enough to handle the content and recommend they choose another game with the appropriate ESRB rating. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s an ancient technique passed down from generations that the historians refer to as “parenting.”

Working at a video game store, I hear many gamers discuss this topic daily. The issue in these conversations is that the amount of awareness is, for the most part, what affects parents’ specific decision. Americans only hear about particular cases, like the South Park case mentioned earlier, but forget the fact that for the majority of the time, the PEGI rates very similarly to the ESRB and is supported by the government of each country in the European Federation, so there is rarely any dispute of ratings after game launch. For those aware of this, making a law requiring proof of age 17+ to purchase M+ rated and higher games is still a touchy subject. On the one hand, that law would prevent lazy employees from selling to underage clients. A point could be made that since no other media in the US is legally controlled in this way, the gate might open for other types of media regulation. A major group attempting to prevent this regulation is the Video Game Voters Network which “is a project sponsored by the Entertainment Software Association, a trade group representing America’s video game publishers.”

Boiling down the average transaction including an underage gamer and their parent isn’t difficult for anyone who has worked in the video game retail industry for two years. To be clearer, we will name the average boy Booker, and the mother will be named Wynne.

The average video game sale in a normal retail location goes like this, we will call the associate Lucy. Booker finds Grand Theft Auto: V and then Booker runs to his mother, Wynne, to convince her that GTA:V is a great game and that he needs it because his best friend from school, Jonny, has it. Depending on the computer system, and Lucy’s awareness, she may see a pop-up on her screen to ask for proof that the purchaser is over the age of 17 for the mature game. This is not, however, a common practice in the standard retail world. Booker then goes home and pops his game into the console. After spending quite some time playing GTA, Wynne walks into the room to see Booker torturing a man. The motherly reprimand ensues and the game industry has lost the trust of another parent.

Had this transaction occurred in a video game-based retail setting, the transaction would have gone much differently. We will call the associate Varric. Wynne attempts to purchase the game, and quickly to try to get out of the store, but Varric notices that Booker is obviously barely 10-14. “Ma’am, these games are rated M for Mature. On the back, the content descriptors at the bottom can tell you if this game is okay for your son. GTA is rated M for ‘Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Mature Humor, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs and Alcohol.’” Booker hears this and quickly tries to recover by informing his mother that Jonny’s mom let him play.

Varric interrupts. “I just wanted to let you know, most gamers still consider this game as AO, Adults Only, since it contains scenes where the player partakes in torture and a lap dance. If you’d like to know more about any games and their ratings, you can download the ESRB app.”

(Video 1: This video shows examples from Grand Theft Auto: V including abuse of women, full nudity of men and women {partial nudity shown in video}, strip clubs, theft, torture, and violence. Please ask for approval before watching if under the age of 17.)

Using the example of Booker, Wynne, and the two retail associates, this shows, to the horror of many vocal bloggers, that it is not the ESRB system that restricts and protects but the ESRB, retail associates, and parents as a team.

The ESRB solution to inaccurate discrimination against video games due to video game violence, even though the Australian government announced that “Violent Video Games Don’t Harm Kid,” is to show to parents they have the power in their hands. The major problems parents run into is that their children are already seeing questionable content on the television, and also that their children have already played certain games elsewhere that they would have said no to otherwise, parents are now being bullied by their own children into allowing them to play popular M-rated games. Slowly but surely, the ESRB campaign for their ratings is getting the word out. The ESRB has content descriptors on all video games, more information on their mobile app and website, and has encouraged retailers (mostly those specifically in the industry have responded) to teach their associates more about the system.
The attitude between the users and the ESRB is going to affect its future. If the ESRB ever wants to be federally backed, it will have to do it during a time when they are well liked by gamers, their parents, and bloggers. Parents will only truly like the ESRB once they understand them, and the other two groups are opposite in their opinions. Parents and retail workers are going to have to become more familiar with the ESRB ratings in order for them to ensure their children are not seeing anything more than what they are allowed to see. We will see what comes out of this generation of T-aged gamers and how they will affect the ESRB as they come of age to purchase M and AO rated games.

Video games have a long way to go in the US before they are not automatically blamed for dangerous actions chosen by others. This has occurred in the past with other new media, and it occurs today. Hopefully the industry will regulate itself and settle in a way parents are informed and find a way of making sure that video games aren’t the cause of their children growing up too quickly. In my opinion the ESRB should continue their marketing campaign, and parents should work together to prevent their children from seeing content they are not allowed to.

The long and short of where I got all of this lovely information for you. Thank you for reading this far.

Works Cited:

Bertz, Matt. Yee: Supreme Court Put the Interest of Corporate America Before Children. 27 June 2011. Web Site. 29 October 2014. .
Entertainment Software Association. ESRB. n.d. Web Site. 29 October 2014. .
Futter, Mike. South Park Gets Censored in Europe, Middle East, and Africa. 25 February 2014. Web Site. 29 October 2014. .

—. You Won’t See This South Park Censorhsip Screen in North American Versions. 3 March 2014. Web Site. 29 October 2014. .
ISFE. ISFE Main Page. n.d. Web Site. 29 October 2014. .
MacDonald, Laura. Quantice Dream – David Cage and Guillaume de Fondaumiere. 4 August 2005. Website. 29 October 2014. <>.
Marchifava, Jeff. Missouri Lawmaker Proposes Violent Video Game Tax. 17 January 2013. Web Site. 29 October 2014. .
Pan- European Game Information. PEGI Main Page. n.d. Web Site. 29 October 2014. .
Ryckert, Dan. Violent Video Games Don’t Harm Kids, Finds Australian Study. 02 December 2010. Web Site. 29 October 2014. .

Video Game Voters Network. VGVN Main Page. n.d. Web Site. 29 October 2014. .

Willias, Katie. Matt Stone on South Park: The Stick of Truth. 8 March 2014. Web Site. 29 October 2014. .

  1. craftyaggie says:

    Reblogged this on Crafty Aggie's Blog and commented:

    Hello everyone! If any of you were wondering where I have been these past few months, this is one of the few dozens papers I worked on for my FIRST semester of college.

    Please while your visiting the THAW Blog (the Blog for my English Class), check out a few of the other posts. Someone else even wrote about Video Game Censorship, but the area he visited I wasn’t able to touch on, so it’s worth the read.

    Thank you all for your support and subscribe to make sure so you don’t miss out on all of the posts this Winter Break!


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