The Game Rating System

Game ratings are usually a hot button issue. Although the Manhunt 2s of the world are few and far between, widely distributed games are subject to the rating processes in every country where they are released. This is a time consuming and sometimes burdensome process, and often requires game developers and publishers to change significant portions of their product just to ensure the widest possible distribution. In this entry, we'll discuss the rating systems for various countries.

There are some distinctions between North American standards of censorship and the standards set forth by other nations. As a result, while the pertinent content for almost all of the rating systems are similar, the weight given to individual content may differ from nation to nation. Therefore it may be necessary to consult a legal authority on the censorship standards of a particular region before submitting your project for an official rating in that region. This discussion is limited to European and English speaking rating systems. Because I am most familiar with the US rating system, my discussion may be a bit ESRB-centric. However, it is important to be aware of international ratings to ensure your game does not run afoul of local laws.

Due to the hot button nature of this topic, I'm making a point to keep this entry strictly informative. I neither endorse nor reject the systems in place to regulate game content, nor do I advocate any one particular system. While I would love to open the floor to discussion and speculation regarding the effects digital distribution will have on rating systems, this isn't the place. Therefore, if you would like to participate in such discussion, I recommend visiting the IGDA forums.

Ratings Generally

Most countries that distribute games maintain rating systems. In some countries the rating is optional, but in many locales the rating system is enforced by law. In the US ratings are determined by the ESRB and are not legally enforced. However, rating systems in the US are such an integral part of our consumer-driven democracy that many distributors and retailers require a rating before putting products on the shelf. In Australia and other countries where the rating systems are enforced by law, games MUST undergo classification or they cannot legally be distributed.

Getting a game rating in several countries is costly and typically only attempted by publishers or prodigally successful independent developers. However, developers interested in selling their product to game publishers should always consider where they want to distribute the game and what they must do to ensure the kind of distribution necessary to make a profit. Failure to consider this during the development process may create serious delays and problems in the release of your game.

As stated previously, there are some fairly universal content descriptions used by most rating systems that determine the game's rating:

  • Realistic sexual content or sexual simulation: The North American standard places a greater weight on this issue that almost every other rating system.
  • Realistic Violence, blood and gore: Many countries view the violence of video games as a serious problem. As a result, the distribution of violent games is regulated by law in several countries.
  • Gambling: Games that promote or provide interactive gambling are usually given a higher rating due the gambling laws that exist in many nations.
  • Discrimination: some systems such as PEGI classify acts of discrimination portrayed in video games as pertinent content for rating purposes.
  • Profanity: Rating boards typically consider the profanity content of a game, and the severity of the profanity used when judging game rating.

In North America: Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB)

The ERSB is self-regulatory. That means that the rating system used is not determined by any state or local government. However, it cannot honestly be claimed that there is no political influence in the rating process. Special interest groups, watchdog organizations, and politicians interested in appealing to those organizations often attempt to legislate or influence the ESRB. Fortunately, the First Amendment places some constraints on government interference with the free distribution of creative works. Because ESRB is fundamentally a US organization, it typically complies with US free speech standards.

To get a game rated, publishers must submit a detailed questionnaire that specifies the "pertinent content" that the game will contain. Submissions must also include a DVD or video containing all pertinent content that will influence the rating (i.e. sex, violence, drug use, profanity). The game then goes to the professional raters, who develop a baseline idea of how the game should be rated. Discussion ensues and the raters come up with a rating based on previously rated game precedent and the general rating criteria. They then submit the rating to the ESRB, who may review the rating to ensure consistency with other games and similar game ratings on the market. The ESRB submits an official rating certificate to the publisher, who can accept the rating or, in the alternative, change the game's content and resubmit for a new rating (which is roughly when the rating process goes from "somewhat expedient" to "time consuming"). Once the game is prepped for release, the pubs send a final version to ESRB for verification that the packaging and game complies with ESRB certification requirements. For more information, be sure to check the site.

Europe and Oceania: PEGI, BBFC, OFLA

The Pan European Game Information rating standard has been adopted by approximately 30 countries in Europe. Like the ESRB, PEGI is self-regulatory and voluntary. Publishers choose to submit their games for rating so that retailers will carry the product. In fact, PEGI is similar to ESRB in just about every way. Like the ESRB, PEGI requires publishers to fill out a questionnaire detailing relevant content that will influence the game's rating. However, this system differs drastically in that there is no board review—instead, an in-house coder for the publisher/developer inputs the answers to the questionnaire and the results of the rating based on the questionnaire are automatically generated.

The classification and rating systems for England, Australia, and New Zealand are governed by law. As a result, the regulation process is stricter than in those countries where the rating system is self-regulatory or optional. These rating systems are particularly strict with regard to violence in video games.

The ratings for each system is more fully explained through their websites. For more information, check:

Http://www.esrb.org

http://www.bbfc.co.uk

http://www.pegi.info

It's important to take notice of the costs and time associated with getting a game rated. It should be a part of your distribution process, even for online games sold through digital distribution that will not be release at retail. Obtaining the requisite certificates and licenses is key to ensuring that your game is legally permitted to be distributed, exhibited, and exploited wherever you choose to release it.