Video games are a globally popular form of entertainment but can be a source of controversy. Many people believe that certain video games can be harmful to children and young adults, while others disagree.
In order to address these concerns, many countries now have video game rating laws, regulations, and/or non-binding industry standards. Whether this is through a private consortium or a government entity varies on the jurisdiction.
In this post, we’ll explore what these laws and standards are, how they work, and what impact they have on the video game industry.
Why have video game ratings laws and standards?
Video game ratings are designed to help consumers make informed decisions for themselves and their families. These ratings are based on content rather than difficulty, providing ages at which a game is appropriate for consumption.
Typically, either law or industry norms require publishers to submit their games to a rating board, which evaluates a game’s content to assign a rating. These ratings are usually based on set criteria, such as violence, sexual content, language, drug use, and other mature themes.
How do video game ratings work?
Video game ratings vary from country to country, but they generally follow a similar process. Here’s how it typically works:
- Video game publishers submit their games to a rating board, such as the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in the United States or the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) in Europe.*
- The board evaluates the game’s content and assigns it a rating based on preexisting criteria.
- The board provides the publisher with a summary of its findings and the rating assigned to the game.
- The game publisher includes the rating on the game’s packaging and marketing materials.
- Consumers use the rating to determine whether the game is appropriate for their purchase.
*Note that many of these rating boards are NOT actually required by law – ESRB ratings, for example, are legally required. Further, the Supreme Court has held that legal enforcement of ESRB ratings unconstitutionally violates free speech. In the United States, ratings are merely an industry standard, albeit an extremely important one.
What are the different video game ratings?
Video game ratings vary depending on the rating board and the country. Here are the ESRB ratings:
- E (Everyone): Suitable for all ages.
- E10+ (Everyone 10 and older): Suitable for ages 10 and older.
- T (Teen): Suitable for ages 13 and older.
- M (Mature): Suitable for ages 17 and older.
- AO (Adults Only): Only suitable for adults.
- RP (Rating Pending): Submitted to a rating board, but not yet rated.
What impact do video game ratings have on the industry?
Video game ratings may significantly impact the industry in various ways. Examples of potential arguments include:
Sales: Games receiving a lower rating may sell fewer copies than games with a higher rating. This is because some consumers may be less likely to buy a game that is rated for a younger audience. However, the existence of so much of Nintendo’s catalog and titles like Minecraft go against this argument.
On the other hand, games with “Adults Only” or similar mature ratings may have their sales impacted by not being able to get on platforms or having parents refuse to allow their children to play. Even mature games may have this issue, but again, the success of titles like Call of Duty seem to push against this.
Marketing: Publishers may need to modify their marketing materials to comply with rating board requirements. For example, they may need to remove certain images or language from their marketing materials.
Development: Developers may need to modify their games to reach the rating they desire. For example, they may need to remove certain violent or sexual content from their games.
What are some of the criticisms of video game ratings?
While video game ratings have been effective in providing information about game content, they have also been criticized for a few reasons. Here are some criticisms of video game ratings:
Inconsistency: Video game rating laws, regulations, and industry norms are often inconsistent across jurisdictions, varying by the board used. This can make it difficult for consumers to compare ratings and determine which games are appropriate for them or their children, though this is probably not a real issue for those who only purchase games in a single region/rating system. It can also present issues for developers and publishers, who have to comply with the different standards.
Lack of transparency: Video game rating boards are not always transparent about criteria used and the weighing of each factor. This can make it difficult for game developers to understand what content is acceptable and what content is not.
Arbitrary standards: Video game rating boards have been accused of using arbitrary standards to rate games. Some rating boards may be more lenient with violence than sexual content, or vice versa.
Self-regulation: Video game rating boards are often self-regulated, in accordance with industry norms in that jurisdiction. Publishers in self-regulating jurisdictions must pay to receive a rating. This has led to accusations that video game publishers have too much influence over the rating process.
What are some examples of video game rating boards around the world?
Boards, and their ratings, vary across countries. Here are some examples of video game rating laws around the world:
- United States: The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rates video games in the United States. The ESRB uses a rating system that includes the following ratings: E, E10+, T, M, and AO.
- Europe: The Pan European Game Information (PEGI) rates video games in Europe. The PEGI uses a rating system that includes the following ratings: 3, 7, 12, 16, and 18.
- Australia: The Australian Classification Board rates video games in Australia. The classification system includes the following ratings: G, PG, M, MA15+, and R18+.
- Japan: The Computer Entertainment Rating Organization (CERO) rates video games in Japan. The CERO uses a rating system that includes the following ratings: A, B, C, D, Z.
- South Korea: The Game Rating and Administration Committee (GRAC) rates video games in South Korea. The GRAC uses a rating system that includes the following ratings: All, 12, 15, 18.
Ratings are an important tool for providing information about a game’s content to help consumers make informed decisions regarding age-appropriateness.
Even so, video game rating boards have been criticized for their inconsistency, lack of transparency, arbitrary standards, and self-regulating nature (as applicable).
Even as the industry evolves, it remains likely that video game rating boards will continue to be an important part of the video game industry.
Need help with this or any other aspect of video game development? Head over to my contact page to set up a consultation!