Gore and Order: The History of the ESRB

(Written as of 2014)

The inclusion of mature content in video games can be traced back to 1979; towards the beginning of the second generation of the industry. Serving as a precursor to the idea of Carmageddon, one of the earliest mature games was the arcade game Death Race, based on the film Death Race 2000, which required players to run over gremlins, and to avoid the gravestones they would leave behind upon death. Media attention was focused on the game’s use of realistic sound effects as opposed to the game’s graphics, which were relatively primitive.

Throughout the early 80s, a development company called Mystique became infamous for releasing a number of pornographic games on the Atari 2600; most notably Custer’s Revenge released in 1982, whereby the objective was to overcome obstacles on the screen to make love to a Native American woman on the opposite end of the screen. Atari responded by attempting to sue Mystique, but the Video Game Crash of 1983 soon saw to both company’s downfalls.

Following the Video Game Crash, the first signs of order and certification in video games was brought into effect by Nintendo, following the release of their console, the Family Computer (Famicom), which was branded in America and Europe as the Nintendo Entertainment System. Putting in placed a number of requirements and restrictions on third-party developers, including the 10-NES lockout chip and the official Nintendo seal of quality, they aimed to have all games released on the console licensed by the company to prevent the mistakes made by Atari, and not simply putting out an excessive amount of poor quality titles. Though there were games released that got past their policies, Nintendo also insisted on the censorship of the following be included in their games; blood, sexual content, religious symbolism, or drugs and alcohol.

When a representative of the Software Publishing Association was asked in 1987 about the suitability of a rating system in video games similar to that of films, he replied saying “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 witch-hunt in the music recording industry, and they got absolutely nowhere”. It wasn’t until around five years later when true order would be established within the industry.

The 90s brought about dramatic improvements to the visual and audio quality of video games during the 16-bit era. It was at this time when United States senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin led hearings addressing the issues of violence in video games and the possible consequential corruption of society back in 1992. The two in particular games cited at the hearing were both Mortal Kombat, which contained the use of the infamous fatality system, and Night Trap, which contained FMVs (Full Motion Video) of a sexually suggestive nature. Both Nintendo and Sega, the two main competitors in the industry at the time, both had differing views on the subject, as the Super Nintendo version of Mortal Kombat was censored heavily, whilst the game was ported to Sega consoles completely uncensored. However, Sega later released a censored version, which later boosted their sales.

Sega had in place a voluntary rating system, known as the VGC (Videogame Ratings Council), having rated Mortal Kombat as MA-13, and Night Trap as MA-17. Arguments ensued at the hearing between both Howard Lincoln and Bill White (chairman of both Nintendo and Sega’s US divisions, respectively), Lincoln condemned Sega for releasing Night Trap in the first place, arguing that it had no place in our society, whilst White argued that Sega was more responsive to consumers than Nintendo was in light of they’re own internal rating system. However, regardless of both Nintendo and Sega’s arguments, Lieberman believed that neither of their own internal company policies was sufficient, and went on in 1994 to threaten the proposal of the creation of a federal commission to regulate and rate video games.

With the threat imposed, Nintendo and Sega, as well as a long list of high-profile video game development companies at the time, such as Acclaim and EA, formed a political trade group called the Interactive Digital Software Association in April 1994, with the goal of regulating the rating of video games themselves. Sega proposed a rating system similar to that of films, but Nintendo objected, wanting to have no association with their main competitors. Instead, however, a vendor-neutral rating system was proposed and brought to Congress three months later on July 29th. This became known as the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board), which was officially launched on September 1st of the same year. The official rating system of the ESRB currently works thusly:

EC for Early Childhood, E for Everyone, E 10+ for Everyone aged 10 or above, T for Teen, M for Mature, and AO for Adults Only. ELSPA (Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishing Association) was then also established in Europe for the rating of games in that region, which was later renamed PEGI (Pan European Games Information).

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