How the ESRB Works

By: Ed Grabianowski

The Effect of Ratings

The most effective regulator of video game content has been the ESRB itself. According to its Web site, "The ESRB is empowered to compel corrective actions and impose a wide range of sanctions, including monetary fines. Corrective actions can include pulling advertising until ratings information can be corrected, re-stickering packaging with correct ratings information, recalling the product, and other steps the publisher must take" [ref].

A game publisher could circumvent the ESRB system entirely by releasing a game without submitting it to the rating process. They could not place a false rating on the game, since the ESRB's rating symbols are trademarked. The game box would simply have no rating symbol, unless the publisher decided to place their own rating on it. However, most major retailers refuse to carry games that don't have official ESRB ratings.


Games that receive an Adults Only rating face a similar problem. But these games are not usually marketed to the general public, and are rarely distributed through major retailers. If some stores stop carrying games with M ratings, more publishers would take notice, and there could be a noticeable effect on the content of future games. When Congress pressured the film industry to stop marketing R-rated movies to teens and children, studios went to great lengths to get a PG-13 rating for films they would otherwise have released with an R because they feared losing an entire segment of their audience.

In the absence of such drastic measures, it seems that a game's rating has little effect on overall sales. In 2004, the ESRB rated 1,036 games. Most of them were rated E or T:

  • 54 percent received an E (Everyone) rating
  • 33 percent received a T (Teen) rating
  • 12 percent received an M (Mature) rating
  • Less than 1 percent received an AO (Adults Only) rating [ref]

2004 sales figures for video games are very similar -- in fact, games rated M seem to sell slightly better than other games, when compared to the percentage of games released:

  • 53 percent of games sold were rated E
  • 30 percent were rated T
  • 18 percent were rated M

The ESA reports that the average game buyer was 39 years old, which indicates that parents are usually purchasing games for their children. They also state: "Game players under the age of 18 report that they get their parent's permission 83 percent of the time before purchasing a computer or video game" [ref].

Next, we'll discuss a recent video game controversy.