Inside the ESRB

Noclip, a video game documentary series on YouTube, recently released a documentary about the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). This is the first time in ESRB’s 25 year history that they have agreed to allow media to enter their doors. “How Does the ESRB Rate Video Games?” gives a sneak peek inside the offices of the ESRB, chatting with Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB and other senior staff. Notably missing from the documentary are the ESRB raters, as they must work under anonymity to protect themselves from publisher influence.

The three main topics explored in the documentary include:

  1. The process for rating games.
  2. The enforcement of advertising standards in video game marketing material.
  3. How, if at all, the ESRB has evolved with the times (i.e. adapting to new challenges such as digital distribution, indie self-publishers and loot boxes).

Some key highlights from the documentary:

  • The whole process of rating usually takes 45 minutes, in which a team of 3 raters are asked to rate individually and come together to discuss the rating. Surprisingly, the raters don’t play the game, but instead, view game clips submitted by publishers through the digital submission forms.
  • They rely heavily on publisher disclosure of the pertinent content, but do engage with the game post-release to ensure compliance (especially with long-form games), as well as reviewing the specific game once every few years to adapt to any ESRB changes.
  • The ESRB’s Advertising Review Council (ARC) enforces ESRB guidelines in video game marketing materials such as trailers, commercials and print ads (Fun fact: Dave Gossett, the Director of Advertising Review Council (ARC) does the voice-overs for the ESRB ratings).
  • Although a game may contain violence, publishers are not allowed to include certain types of violence in their marketing material according to the ARC Guidelines (i.e. marketing material may not depict characters being shot and no blood can be shown), but the material must still accurately depict the type of content that audiences can expect in the game.
  • To tackle the growing volume of mobile games being released internationally, the ESRB along with other international regulatory rating bodies created the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC), a semi-automated rating process, where publishers submit details about their game digitally and are then simultaneously given ratings for each participating region.

In this documentary, the ESRB briefly addressed the issue of loot boxes and their decision to not disclose or label it as gambling. Vance replies that due to the demands for the public to disclose loot boxes, they conducted research on loot boxes and discovered that parents did not know what they were. When informed, parents expressed concerns relating only to spending.

            “Now, gamers may be concerned about [how] it looks and feels like gambling. Why don’t you ESRB, call it gambling? It doesn’t fit into the criteria of either simulated gambling or gambling, so that was not an avenue that we were going down.”

This sparked heavy discussion in the comment section, with viewers critiquing ESRB’s stance on loot boxes (with many believing that this is due to corporate lobbying) as well as Noclip for not pressing the issue with ESRB further. In the last two years especially, ESRB has received a lot of criticism for their failure to disclose loot boxes as gambling. The controversy led to ESRB adding an “in-game purchases” descriptor to their labels.

Despite the mixed reviews on this documentary, I feel that it has along with the resulting feedback from viewers has provided necessary insight into the growing discourse and public perception of video game ratings and loot boxes.

For more information on ESRB and the loot-box controversy: