The 1990s saw the last significant wave of attempted government regulation over the video game industry. During the decade gaming would be assailed on fronts from congressional Democrats Joseph Lieberman and Herbert Kohl attempting to have legislation passed to regulate the depiction of violence in video games. To the latter half of the decade where religious proponents like Jack Thompson would take their crack at the industry with the first video game lawsuit. In-between these two events in 1994 the ESA, formerly the Digital Software Association, established the ESRB to rate all video games based on the content within and assign an age rating. Ultimately this would bring an end to the attempted regulation of the industry by the government, having based the entire cause on an attempted moral panic that no longer applied.
Console manufacturers immediately got on board as did most retail stores, both refusing to sell any unrated titles. Sadly this is also the origination of the discrimination against Adult Rated games as everyone involved did not want to incur further regulatory efforts.
The ESRB’s rating were enough to ward off the regulatory bodies until recently, when the ESA — chaired and controlled by the same industry it is supposed to oversee –- has obfuscated in-game gambling mechanics the industry needs as they attempt to become more politically active and move away from the old audiences. As a result, the regulatory bodies of today are no longer content around the world sitting back and letting the industry get away with whatever they want.
Further exposing the ESRB for what it is, Youtubers Angry Joe and Yong Yea have put together detailed journalistic pieces outlining how the ESRB does not play a single game it reviews. Coupled with their collusion with the industry itself strips the ESRB’s ratings of any claims of unbias or capacity to self-regulate the industry.
Frankly that was fairly obvious with Hatred, which received an AO rating solely on political reasons, yet ended up with content less heinous than Postal 2, a game out over a decade before Hatred’s release. All during a “who can be most offended by this game before it comes out” contest that humiliated most of the detractors when the game launched with a plot so absurd and dialog so corny after the first chapter it became a comedy one could not take seriously anymore. As the antagonist concludes his rampage by blowing up a nuclear reactor with dialog so edgy it is entirely possible that the explosives had failed and the edge had become so intense it cut an atom triggering the chain reaction.
Another example worth mentioning and cited by the two YouTubers is San Andreas and it’s hot coffee debacle. Another game that was assigned an AO rating purely because of the moral panic backlash for content no normal person could access on disc. As a kid I can remember all my friends and I wondering why everyone was outraged at content you couldn’t access while also quite eager to figure out how to unlock it much to our eventual disappointment.
During the Hot Coffee saga it came out that the reason the content that was inaccessible went unnoticed was because the ESRB didn’t play the games they were reviewing.
“When a publisher plans to release a game, they submit an application to the ESRB. Then they send a video of footage from the actual game, including the most extreme examples of potentially offensive content and overall game play. The raters view this footage — they never actually play the game — and assign it an ESRB rating (for example, E (Everyone) for a game that is suitable for ages 6 and over).”
Given again the content was inaccessible through all means other than modding, it would have mattered very little if they had played the game or not. Nevertheless, they admitted readily that they did not play the games they reviewed.
After the fiasco one would assume the ESRB would have changed their review system , but they have not.
From the ESRB’s own website it states
ESRB ratings for physical (boxed) video games are based on the consensus of at least three specially trained raters who collectively assess a game’s content and deliberate about what rating should be assigned to a game. Some raters are also required to play-test games post-release to ensure that complete and accurate content disclosure was provided to ESRB when it was originally submitted for rating.
ESRB raters do not play through games during the rating process for a variety of reasons. First, many games can have upwards of 50 hours of gameplay, so requiring a minimum of three raters to play through hundreds of physical (boxed) games rated annually would be impractical. Additionally, games are player-controlled and enable many different permutations of gameplay depending upon how the player decides to approach a situation. We do, however, play-test many games after release to help ensure all pertinent content was disclosed during the rating process.
With the ESRB unwilling to act independently of the industry it is supposed to regulator. Coupled with the fact it doesn’t even perform the base duty of its office the industry just lost the last shield it had against incoming regulation. Regulation that increasingly looks necessary and will have to by the gaming consumers be carefully monitored for encroachment beyond its stated scope.