Originally published in 2005, we've just updated this story to explain to those confused by the current state of video game and movie ratings, just how ratings work.
While the Supreme Court of the United States' decision to examine California's 2005 violent video game law is mostly about Freedom of Speech, any outcome that support the law could have a deep impact on the way video games are rated and the sorts of games retails sell and developer make. So now's probably a good time to re-examine the current state of affairs for both movie and video game ratings.
Both the video game and movie rating systems are run by independent groups set up by their respective industries, both use similar systems to give out ratings and neither are enforced by law.
When was the system established? The Entertainment Software Rating Board was established in 1994 by the Entertainment Software Association.
The Classification and Rating Administration was established in 1968 by the Motion Picture Association of America. The CARA system replaced a set of industry censorship guidelines known as the Hays Code, in place since 1930,
What is the purpose of the rating system? Both the ESRB and CARA systems are purely voluntary. The CARA is a voluntary organisation sponsored by the MPAA and National Association of Theatre Owners. The ESRB is a voluntary organisation sponsored by the ESA.
What are the ratings? For movies, the current MPAA ratings are: G: General audiences, all audiences admitted PG: Parental guidance suggested. PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned, some material inappropriate for children under 13. R: Restricted, under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. NC-17: No one under 17 admitted.
For video games, the current ESRP ratings are: Early Childhood: Titles suitable for ages 3 and older. Everyone: Titles suitable for ages 6 and older. Everyone 10+ Titles suitable for ages 10 and older. Teen: Titles suitable for ages 13 and older. Mature: Titles suitable for ages 17 and older. Adults Only: Titles suitable for ages 18 and older.
Both the ESRB and CARA ratings also can include content descriptors.
Who gives the ratings? The CARA uses the film rating board which is made up of a group of parents who first view the film, then discuss it and vote on a rating. No movies are forced to submit a film to the board for a rating, but most do.
The ESRB uses a group of three specially trained raters. The raters are of various ages and background and cannot have any ties to the computer and video game industry. They are not expert game players and are kept anonymous to ensure the integrity of the process.
How is a rating determined? CARA board members view a film then each member estimates what they think most parents would consider to be a good rating for the movie. After a discussion they vote, with each member filling out a form spelling out the reasons for a rating. The rating must be decided by a majority vote. The producer or distributor has the right to know why a movie got a specific rating and to edit a film in hopes of changing a rating.
A rating can also be appealed which involves presenting arguments before an Appeals Board and a secret ballot. A two-thirds vote is needed to overturn a rating.
The ESRB requires a game publisher to fill out a detailed questionnaire explaining what's in a game and submit it along with actual videotaped footage of the game, showing the most extreme content and an accurate representation of the context and product as a whole.
Three raters independently view the footage and recommend a rating and content descriptors. The ESRB then compares the recommendations to make sure there is a consensus. When raters disagree, additional raters are asked to review the game.
Once a rating decision is reached the publisher is given a rating certificate. When the game is ready for release it is sent to the ESRB to have its packaging reviewed to ensure the rating is displayed properly. The ESRB also has a game expert randomly play final games to make sure they match the information provided by the publisher.
What is the criteria for rating? Both the CARA and ESRB look at the type of content, how it is presented and how much of the content is in the movie or game.
Theme, language, violence, nudity, sex and drug use are among those content areas considered in the decision-making process.
How are ratings enforced? The decision to enforce the movie rating system is purely voluntary and carries no force of law. The Classification and Rating Administration can issue sanctions that include removal of a rating or ratings from a movie.
The ESRB is responsible for the enforcement of its ratings system. Publishers of a rated game are legally bound to disclose all pertinent content when submitting the game for an ESRB rating.
If in-game material is not disclosed that would have effected the rating or content descriptor of a game, the ESRB can take corrective actions and impose a wide range of sanctions, including fines, pulling advertising for a game, recalling a game or requiring a game to be re-stickered to the correct rating.
How well does the rating system work? About 87 per cent of parents with children who play video games are aware of the rating system and 76 per cent say they regularly check the rating before buying computer and video games for their children, according to a survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates in May 2009.
The Federal Trade Commission in 2007 called the ESRB rating system a "useful and important tool that parents increasingly use to help them make informed decisions about games for their children".