The ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) is one of the largest self-regulatory ratings board in the world, one part Europe’s PEGI and Japan’s CERO. The stated goal of all three of these acronym-fueled organizations is to accredit age ratings for electronic software, most often video games.
The need for these groups arose in the early 1990’s when video games were under heavy fire from world governments – particularly the United States – as it was believed video games promoted violence and sexual content to children. While the debate has settled down since, video games are still regularly blamed by political pundits whenever a national tragedy occurs. Most recently, United States President Donald Trump attributed the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February to violent video games, stating “maybe they have to put a rating system for that,” not knowing that such a thing already exists.
This really illustrates the point of the ratings system isn’t really to inform parents about the content of video games, that’s a happy side effect. The real goal is to keep governments away from the industry. The ESRB is the child of the Electronic Software Association, a trade association that frequently lobbies on behalf of video games to the United States government. In effect, the ESA and by extension the ESRB are political organizations.
That’s what makes their recent announcement about no longer providing short-form ratings so disturbing.
On May 18, the ESRB announced it was putting an end to its short-form rating system. These so-called “short-form” ratings are what you typically find on independent digital games on Steam and the like. They’re brief marks that give a rundown on the content of a game, and are usually hard to find, especially on Steam. What you find on retail copies of video games are “long-form” ratings. The key difference is that short-form ratings can be given free of charge, but long-form ratings require payment to the ESRB by a game’s developer or publisher.
Console manufactures (Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft), as well as online storefronts such as Steam and GOG require an ESRB rating to be sold. That means that, in effect, video game developers and publishers will now be required to pay the ESRB before they can sell their own games.
So why is the ESRB doing this? The ESRB is keeping their lips sealed on that front, so nobody knows. It’s likely an effort to promote their own subsidiary, the International Age Ratings Coalition (IARC) as a company spokesperson pointed out that developers could still get free ratings from them. The IARC is a group created by the ESRB (read: ESA) that’s trying to create a unified age rating system internationally, doing away with PEGI and CERO and any other independent software regulatory group.
Or is it? So far, the only platforms that accept a rating from the IARC in place of the ESRB are Nintendo, Microsoft, Google, and Oculus. The ESRB says Sony has vowed to support the IARC “soon,” but even then, other online storefronts like Steam or Apple aren’t on board, and the growing cottage industry of physically produced indie games will be required to go through the long-form ESRB rating process.
Douglas Bogart of Limited Run Games, one of the largest manufacturers of physical indie games, has come forward in the past against the ESRB’s new policies. In September 2017, he revealed that the ESRB and console manufacturers started requiring all physical games carry an ESRB rating, even ones sold only on specialty online storefronts like Limited Run. Months later, the ESRB is now requiring companies to pay for those ratings.
In March 2018, Douglas stated in a forum post that Limited Run would be increasing the price of its games, due in large part to cover the cost of ESRB ratings. Another, similar company that specializes in producing physical copies of indie games called Special Reserve said their business model would take a huge hit from this new policy.
“What I can say is that for a game like Ruiner, the mandate to acquire the rating for our very small batch run was going to increase our COGs (cost of goods sold) by 35%,” Special Reserve CEO Jeff Smith told Kotaku back in November. “That is significant, especially when this mandate was imposed while we were already in production.”
From the outside looking in, it’s hard not to view this as anything other than a shakedown. Console manufacturers and online storefronts started requiring all games to get a rating from the ESRB, then a few months later the ESRB gets rid of its free rating system, forcing developers and publishers to either pay up or use the ESRB’s new proprietary age rating system. If you don’t comply, you can’t sell your game anywhere except on your own.
What this means for game developers is still unclear. In the short term, it means studios are going to have to fork over a lot of money for a proper, long-form rating. The big boys of the AAA space won’t have a problem with that, but in the indie space this could potentially end somebody’s dream in the worst case scenario. Long term, who knows? It all comes down to who will (and who won’t) support the IARC’s free ratings. And of course the ESRB could always reverse their decision, though it seems like we’ve reached the point of no return now.
Perhaps we should concern ourselves more with what the ESRB and the ESA will do next. Forcing game makers to pay them for the privilege of releasing their game is scummy, but not out of character for the ESA. They have a long history of supporting legislation that would gut Net Neutrality, backing predatory lootbox practices, issuing spurious copyright notices, and spending millions of dollars per year on lobbying to the US Congress.
Bullying developers into paying them money or using their half-baked international rating system is perfectly in character for them. And when that is supposed to be the biggest organization representing video games, it’s hard to look into the future of the medium full of hope.