"ESRB" redirects here. For the European financial agency, see European Systemic Risk Board.
Entertainment Software Rating Board
Non-profit, self-regulatory
Industry Organization and rating system
Predecessor(s) 3DO Rating System
Recreational Software Advisory Council
Videogame Rating Council
Founded 1994[1] in Canada and United States
Headquarters New York City, New York, U.S.
Area served Canada
United States
Key people Patricia Vance
(President, CEO)

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is a self-regulatory organization that assigns age and content ratings, enforces industry-adopted advertising guidelines, and ensures responsible online privacy principles for computer and video games in Canada and the United States.[2] The ESRB was established in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association (formerly Interactive Digital Software Association), in response to criticism of violent content found in video games such as Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, Lethal Enforcers, Doom, and other controversial video games portraying excessively violent or intense sexual situations. The board assigns ratings to games based on their content, using judgment similar to the motion picture rating systems used in many countries. In addition, content descriptors explain specific types of content present in games. The ratings are intended to aid consumers in determining a game's content and suitability. A game's rating is generally displayed on its box, in its media, in advertisements, and on the game's website.[1] By July 2012, it had assigned more than 22,000 ratings to titles submitted by more than 350 publishers.[3]

Many retail stores prohibit the sale of unrated video games, and major console manufacturers will not license games for their systems unless they carry ESRB ratings.


When asked in 1987 about the suitability of a film-like rating system for video games, the Software Publishers Association said "Adult computer software is nothing to worry about. It's not an issue that the government wants to spend any time with ... They just got done with a big witchhunt in the music recording industry, and they got absolutely nowhere". The association did recommend voluntary warnings for games like Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (1987).[4] Games' progression into the 16-bit era brought dramatic increases in graphics and sound capabilities. Blood and gore, in particular, could be portrayed much more clearly than in 8-bit games. Whereas blood in an 8-bit game could look blocky and pixelated, in a 16-bit game, it can be an easily identified fluid graphic. The release of games such as Mortal Kombat, Doom, Night Trap, and Lethal Enforcers resulted in controversy due to violent and otherwise objectionable content. In the United States Senate, Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl, of Connecticut and Wisconsin, respectively, led hearings on video game violence and the corruption of society in the early 1990s. Their hearings charged the entertainment software industry with the creation of a working rating system within a year, threatening federal creation of a system if they failed to do so.

Around this time, the Videogame Rating Council (VRC) was formed by Sega, largely to rate its own games. In 1993, the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) was formed, and the 3DO Company formed their own rating system, the 3DO Rating System, for games released on the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer. In 1994, the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) was formed by the Software Publishers Association.[5] On July 29, 1994 the proposal from the IDSA for a rating system, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was presented to, and approved by, Congress[6] In September 1994, the ESRB was established, becoming the de facto rating system for American video games.[7] Initially, many companies who produced computer games, such as LucasArts, Sierra On-Line, and 3D Realms continued to follow the RSAC system, but eventually, all companies agreed to follow the ESRB ratings.

The rating system initially consisted of five different ratings: Early Childhood, Kids to Adults, Teen, Mature, and Adults Only. Shortly thereafter, "Informational" and "Edutainment" descriptors were added. In 1996, the rating icons were altered, adding the "Content Rated by ESRB" text. On January 1, 1998, the Kids to Adults rating was renamed to Everyone. Later that year, the Entertainment Software Rating Board Interactive (ESRBi) was formed, which rated web sites and online games. In late 1999, in order to make the rating symbols more legible, the pixelated rating icons were replaced with black and white ones. Beginning in early 2001, several content descriptors were retired and replaced. Content descriptors with "Animated" or "Realistic" distinctions in them had those portions removed. The "Skills" descriptors used for the Early Childhood rating were removed as well. A short time later, the Gaming descriptor was changed to Gambling, which itself was split into Real and Simulated Gambling in the following years.[8]

In mid-2003, the ESRBi was closed down. On June 26, 2003, content descriptors were made larger and more legible, and newer, more thorough descriptors for violence (Cartoon, Fantasy, Intense) were added as well as a descriptor for Mature Humor. Also, the Mature and Adults Only icons had 17+ and 18+ added to their title band in order to clearly signify the age appropriateness. On March 2, 2005, after conferring with academicians and child development experts, the Everyone 10+ rating was introduced.[9] Raters were initially hired on a part-time basis, but as of April 2007, the ESRB employs raters full-time.[10]

ESRB is also involved with ratings for mobile applications. All apps in the Verizon Apps Store utilize the CTIA Mobile Applications Rating System with ESRB. (PR N. Verizon Wireless Fully integrates CTIA Mobile Application Rating System With ESRB. PR Newswire US [serial online]. August 14, 2012:Available from: Regional Business News, Ipswich, MA. Accessed October 11, 2013.)

Rating process

To obtain a rating for a game, a publisher sends the ESRB a DVD containing footage of the most graphic and extreme content found in the game, including content related to the game's context, storyline, reward system and other elements that may affect its rating. The publisher also fills out a questionnaire describing the game's content and pays a fee (which is significantly lower for games with development costs under $1 million).

For each game, the ESRB employs at least three trained raters who collectively watch the footage sent in by publishers and recommend a rating. ESRB personnel review the footage and all materials to ensure accuracy of the rating, and a certificate is sent to the publisher. A publisher may subsequently edit the game and resubmit the footage and questionnaire in order to achieve a lower rating, or appeal the rating to a committee made up of entertainment software industry representatives. If a publisher chooses to do so, the process begins anew.

When the game is ready for release, the publisher sends copies of the final version of the game to the ESRB. The ESRB reviews the game's packaging, and a random number of games they receive are play tested for more thorough review. Penalties apply to publishers who misrepresent the content of their games, including the potential for fines up to $1 million and a product recall, if deemed necessary.

The identities of the ESRB raters are kept confidential, although they are all full-time ESRB employees who live in the New York City area. According to the ESRB website, "All ESRB raters are adults who typically have experience with children, whether through prior work experience, education or as parents or caregivers." [11] Raters are supposed to review games as if they were a customer receiving their first glance at the game.[12]

In April 2011, the ESRB introduced a streamlined, automated process for assigning ratings for console downloadable games as a way to address the rapidly growing volume of digitally-delivered games.[13] Rather than having raters review each product, publishers of these games complete a series of multiple-choice questions that address content across relevant categories, including violence, sexual content, language, etc. The responses automatically determine the game's rating category and content descriptors. Games rated via this process may be tested post-release to ensure that content was properly disclosed.[14]


The symbols ESRB uses are stylized alphabetical letters meant to indicate the game's suitability. The icons have been updated several times; originally carrying a stylized, pixelated look, the rating icons were updated in 1999 to carry a cleaner appearance. In 2013, the rating icons were streamlined; the top portion containing the textual name of the rating became black on white, the "content rated by" tagline was removed entirely, and trademark symbols were moved to the bottom-right corner. The changes were intended to increase their clarity at smaller sizes (such as on mobile devices), reflecting the growth in the digital distribution of video games.[15]

Unrestricted ratings

Abbreviation Rating Active since Description Suitable for
Early Childhood (EC) 1994 These games contain content that may be suitable for children ages 3 and up. Games with this rating contain no material that adults would find inappropriate or offensive. Games that fall under this rating are specifically intended for young children and are usually educational and contain no violence, sexuality, language, or other inappropriate material. 3 and over.
Everyone (E) 1998 These games contain content that may be suitable for children ages 6 and up. Games in this category may contain mild, cartoon, or fantasy violence. The content is mild in impact. Might also contain of mild language/lyrics, comic mischief, and/or mild suggestive themes. This rating replaced the older K-A at the beginning of 1998. 6 and over.
Everyone 10+ (E10+) Late 2004 These games contain content that may be considered suitable for children 10 years of age and up. The content is mild to moderate in impact. Titles in this category may contain more of mild, cartoon, or fantasy violence, mild humor, more of mild language/lyrics, animated/mild blood, and/or more of mild suggestive themes. 10 and over.
Teen (T) 1994 These games contain content that may be suitable for children 13 years of age and up. The content is moderate to strong in impact. However, they are not strictly age-restricted and children 12 and under may purchase them. Titles in this category may contain more moderate, cartoon, or fantasy violence, moderate blood/gore, more gambling, strong crude/suggestive humor, used of moderate suggestive/sexual themes, may include partial nudity, and/or frequent use of strong language. 13 and over.

Restricted ratings

Abbreviation Rating Active since Description Suitable for
Mature 17+ (M) 1994 Games with this rating contain content that may be considered unsuitable for people under 17 years of age. Persons under this age may only purchase, rent, exhibit or view these games under the supervision of a parent or adult guardian. The content is strong and extreme in impact. Titles in this category may contain more blood and gore than the Teen rating would accommodate, mature humor, more gambling, intense violence, sexual themes or content, nudity, (which are often censored and stronger) and/or use of strong language.[16] 17 and over.
Adults Only 18+ (AO) 1994 Games in this category contain content that is unsuitable for people under 18 years of age, and persons under said age may not buy, rent, exhibit or view these games. The content is extreme in impact. These may include adult video games that show strong sexual themes/content, graphic nudity, use of drugs/alcohol/tobacco, strong language, strong mature humor, real gambling, and/or strong violence, and blood and/or gore than the M rating can accommodate. As of 2013, there have been thirty-two products that have received the rating. The AO rating is the subject of ongoing controversy due to the extreme restrictions it places on game sales. Games from major publishers that receive an AO rating are often "toned down" in order to gain the lesser rating of M. Companies like Microsoft,[17] Sony, and Nintendo[18] all have policies against allowing AO rated games to be licensed on their consoles. Additionally, most major retailers, even those who carry M-rated games, won't sell AO-rated titles in their stores or through their websites. Consequently, most AO-rated games are restricted to the PC and Mac, and sold in limited fashion. 18 and over.

Digital ratings

On October 24, 2012, ESRB announced 3 new additional "Interactive Elements" for digital games.[19] The Interactive Elements indicate if the game Shares Info, Shares Location, or if Users Interact.[20]

Other ratings

Abbreviation Rating Active since Description
Rating Pending (RP) 1994 This symbol is exclusively used in advertising and marketing materials. It indicates a product that has not yet been assigned a final rating.[21] However, once a game is rated, all advertising for a game must contain its official ESRB rating. Depending on their content, some games supplement their RP rating with the disclaimer, "May contain content inappropriate for children".

Former ratings

Abbreviation Rating Active Description Recommended for
Kids to Adults (K-A) 1994–1998 This category indicated titles with appeal to people of many ages and tastes. Titles in this category may contain minimal violence, some comic mischief (i.e. slapstick and gross-out comedy), or some crude language. This rating was replaced in 1998 by the E rating; subsequently, all games with a K-A rating are considered to be E-rated with few exceptions. The E rating does maintain "Enfants et adultes" (literally "Kids and adults") as its French name. All ages.

Content descriptors

In addition to the letter-based rankings above, official ESRB ratings for games include an appropriate amount of the following 30 designations of potentially objectionable content:

Content descriptor Game contents Rating in which the descriptor may be found
Alcohol Reference Reference to and/or images of alcoholic beverages. E, E10+, T
Animated Blood Colored and/or unrealistic depictions of blood. E10+, T
Blood Depictions of blood. T, M
Blood and Gore Depictions of blood and/or the mutilation of body parts. T, M, AO
Cartoon Violence Violent actions involving cartoon-like situations and characters. May include violence where a character is unharmed after the action has been inflicted. E, E10+, T
Comic Mischief Depictions or dialogue involving slapstick or suggestive humor. E, E10+, T
Crude Humor Depictions or dialogue involving vulgar antics, including "bathroom" humor, and slapstick. E10+, T, M
Drug Reference Reference to and/or images of illegal drugs. T, M
Fantasy Violence Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or non-human characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life. E, E10+, T
Intense Violence Graphic and realistic-looking depictions of all conflict. May involve extreme, realistic blood, gore, weapons, action, human injury death and pain. M, AO
Language Mild to moderate use of profanity. E10+, T, M
Lyrics Mild references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol or drugs in music. E10+, T, M
Mature Humor Depictions or dialogue involving "adult" humor, including graphic, sexual references, mature content, and pornographic. M, AO
Nudity Graphic and/or prolonged depictions of nudity. M, AO
Partial Nudity Brief and/or mild depictions of nudity. T, M
Real Gambling Players can gamble, including betting or wagering real cash or currency. AO
Sexual Content Explicit depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including partial nudity. M, AO
Sexual Themes References to sex or sexuality. T, M
Sexual Violence Depictions of rape or other violent sexual acts. AO
Simulated Gambling Games where you have the option to bet or wager in-game currency (not real world money). E, E10+, T, M
Strong Language Explicit and/or frequent use of profanity. T, M, AO
Suggestive Themes Mild provocative references or materials. E, E10+, T, M
Strong Lyrics Explicit and/or frequent references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol or drugs in music. T, M, AO
Strong Sexual Content Explicit and/or frequent depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including nudity. M, AO
Tobacco Reference References to and/or images of tobacco products. T, M
Use of Alcohol The consumption of alcoholic beverages. E10+, T, M
Use of Drugs The consumption or use of illegal drugs. T, M, AO
Use of Tobacco The consumption of tobacco products. E10+, T, M
Violence Scenes involving aggressive and physical conflict. May contain blood. E, E10+, T, M
Violent References References to violent acts. E10+, T

Mobile App Ratings

In November 2011, CTIA - The Wireless Association announced that the ESRB had been selected to develop and administer a rating system specifically designed for mobile apps. Founding storefronts for this initiative include AT&T, Microsoft, Sprint, T-Mobile USA, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless.[22]

The "CTIA Mobile Application Rating System with ESRB" assigns ratings via a brief questionnaire that assess the app's content,[23] similar to the one devised by the ESRB for console downloadable games.[24] The ESRB app ratings use the same age rating icons (with the exception of the "Early Childhood" category) and similar content descriptors as the ESRB's traditional game rating system. Apps are also assigned notices that advise of other elements parents might want to be aware of, including the sharing of the user's location or their personal information, or possible exposure to user-generated content. According to a guide posted on ESRB's website, these notices include "Shares Info," "Shares Location," and "Users Interact."[25] Participating storefronts "may display any or all of the components of an app's rating prior to download and/or utilize this information as filtering criteria."[26]

As of September 2012 the ESRB had assigned ratings to more than 100 mobile apps[27] and its ratings could be found in the Windows Phone Marketplace,[28] T-Mobile Mall, and Verizon Apps - which was the first to adopt ESRB ratings for all apps available in their storefront.[29]

Advertising & Marketing Guidelines

In addition to assigning ratings the ESRB also enforces guidelines that have been adopted by the video game industry in order to ensure responsible advertising and marketing practices.[30] These include ensuring that game packaging and advertisements properly display rating information and restricting where ads for games rated T or higher can appear.[31] This allows the ESRB to restrict video game advertising "to consumers for whom the product is not rated as appropriate."[32] The industry's enforcement of advertising and marketing guidelines led the Federal Trade Commission to recognize ESRB as having "the strongest self-regulatory code" of all entertainment sectors in its 2009 Report to Congress.[33]

Video game publishers agree to abide by these guidelines when they receive a rating from the ESRB, and this agreement empowers ESRB to impose fines and other sanctions in cases where a violation of these guidelines has occurred. While ESRB guidelines technically apply only to the companies that submit their products to be rated, online retailers such as Steam, Xbox Live Marketplace, PlayStation Network, and the Wii Shop Channel ban minors from downloading game demos or trailers for games rated Mature or Rating Pending.[34]


Violence and the AO rating

The ESRB has often been accused of not rating games harshly enough for violence and other related themes. Games such as Harvester, Manhunt, Rise of the Triad, Mortal Kombat, and Soldier of Fortune, which have shown gruesome violence, received an M rating. Many critics have claimed that these games deserve the AO rating[35] and were given the M for commercial reasons.[36] The ESRB states that it rates games AO when warranted - even due to violence. It also states that consoles do not license AO-rated games and only sell Rated M games, and that retailers generally choose not to sell AO-rated games, and that both of those factors cause publishers of AO-rated games to revise and resubmit them in order to obtain the more marketable Mature rating.[37] Rise of the Triad in particular, received the highest violence descriptor: "Wanton and gratuitous violence" from the Recreational Software Advisory Council, which was mitigated by its M rating by the ESRB. The Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, their respective provincial governments classified Soldier of Fortune and Manhunt as films, and gave them "Restricted" ratings, limiting their sale to adults.[38]

The ESRB has only given out the AO rating for violence alone twice: first for Thrill Kill (which was canceled after the developer was bought by Electronic Arts), and then for Manhunt 2.[39] The Punisher[40] was never officially given the AO rating, as it toned down its violent content (by placing the offending scenes in black and white) to receive an M rating. Manhunt 2 was edited before release in order to qualify for an M, though an uncut PC version has since been released with an AO rating. Of particular concern to the ESRB was a scene depicting castration, which was removed entirely from the M-rated console versions of the game. Thrill Kill received an AO rating with content descriptors for Animated Violence and Animated Blood and Gore, but was never released after the original publisher, Virgin Entertainment, was purchased by Electronic Arts.[41]

GameSpy has suggested that Grand Theft Auto III (their 2001 Game of the Year) received such treatment from the ESRB, saying "Counter-Strike is merely Cowboys and Indians writ large. When you get right down to it, deathmatches are just elaborate games of Tag. GTA 3 is a Thug Simulator... [GTA 3 is] absolutely reprehensible. This is a game that rewards you for causing mayhem. This is a game that is about causing mayhem. It's a game that rewards you for killing innocent people by the dozen."[42]

Twenty-three products have been given the AO rating without revision for a different rating. Peak Entertainment Casinos was rated AO for unsimulated online gambling. Two were given for violence, as aforementioned. The remaining 20 AO games were given rated thus for sexual content or nudity.

Hidden content

Main articles: Hot Coffee minigame controversy and ESRB re-rating of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

In 2005, members of the mod community discovered that the PC version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas could be modified to unlock an incomplete sex minigame known as "Hot Coffee", which Rockstar North had decided to leave out of the final game. The discovery of the minigame caused California State Assemblyman Leland Yee to rebuke both Rockstar and the ESRB, arguing that the ESRB was not doing its job properly. US Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Lieberman also expressed their disapproval. Rockstar initially claimed that the minigame was created by the mod community and was not a part of the original game. This was disproven when it was discovered that a third-party cheat device could be used to unlock the "Hot Coffee" scenes in console versions of the game.[43] Following an investigation the ESRB changed its rating from M to AO, setting a precedent that games can be re-rated due to the presence of pertinent content that exists on the game's disc, even if that content is programmed to not be playable without modification or unauthorized use of a third-party cheat device.[44] Although this made Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas the best selling game to receive an AO rating, Rockstar soon released a patch that disabled the modification on PC versions and re-released the game as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Second Edition. The new release disabled all access to the "Hot Coffee" mini-game and was given the game's original M rating by the ESRB as a result.

In 2006, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion had its rating changed from T to M due to "more detailed depictions of blood and gore than were considered in the original rating, as well as a mod that, if accessed through a third-party modification to the PC version of the game, allows the user to play with topless versions of female characters." The game's publisher decided not to re-release the game to remove the hidden texture, stating that it believed the original rating was the most accurate assessment of what parents should expect from the game.[45][46][47]

Rockstar Games' Manhunt 2 was postponed for three months in the United States and several other countries due to its initial AO rating from the ESRB. Numerous edits brought the rating down to M. Less than a week after the release, it was discovered that the PS2 and PSP versions of the game could be modified to erase the patches that censored the violent content. Rockstar Games has since claimed that even with these modifications, many of the scenes were toned down from the original version submitted to the ESRB for rating. As a result, the ESRB chose not to change the game's rating from M. Ultimately, an AO-rated PC version was released by Rockstar as a download exclusive. Similarly, The Punisher was hacked into to allow uncensored kills, and the PC version had patches to remove the filters and intensify the violence.

News leaks

The ESRB typically posts rating information for new titles on its website 30 days after the rating process is complete. This can cause a game's existence to become public information before its official announcement. As a result, the ESRB implemented a process by which publishers with concerns about this practice can request that information about the game not be posted to the ESRB's website until a specific date.[48]

See also


External links

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