ESRB Ratings Aren’t Required. Or Are They?

M for Mature, T for Teen, E for Everyone… If you live in the United States these ESRB ratings are synonymous with video games. The Entertainment Software Rating Board has been charged with the task of rating our games. Just like movies, video games are not legally required to post their rating, or even have a rating. So why do games choose to pay for the Mature logo on the front of their package if it could steer potential buyers away from their product?

Even though ESRB ratings are completely optional, the video game industry has closed its doors on games that don’t opt for the rating board’s approval. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all require any game (including arcade style games) to have an official ESRB rating. So every game that comes out on current consoles has paid to have a rating.

Even if game developers want to avoid the $800-$2,500 fee and sell computer games most retail outlets will not accept their product. Businesses that specialize in video games like GameStop, and even generic grocery stores like Wal-Mart will refuse developers a spot on their shelves without the rating. And because there is no federal law connected with ESRB ratings, it is the store’s choice whether to prohibit sales for M rated games to minors.

There are ways for games to get around the Entertainment Software Rating Board’s process. With the drastic rise in the indie gaming world lots of producers are selling their games directly from the website. Also major online retailor Steam has yet to require ESRB ratings on the games that they sell.

So why is any of this important? Because we as a gaming community are choosing to force small developers into an extra $800 fee. There is no law requirement; it’s the video game industry’s choice. For small games that can triple the entire games budget. Even though parents have the right to censor the content seen by their children this should not be a requirement that the gaming industry complies with. Especially not for small indie games.

But the oppression on small indie producers does not end there. Big games have the ability to repay the rating board for a new official rating. There is no limit to the amount of times a game can apply. So for big games like Grand Theft Auto, they can reapply until their game’s rating drops from A to M. Small companies don’t have the expendable budget to compete.

Apple has not yet required an ESRB rating on any of their platforms. This is why it is so easy for people to make arcade games on for iPhones and iPods. Unlike games from the Xbox Live Marketplace or PlayStation Network there is virtually no rating system. So if you want to fool around with game creation you are limited to the casual marketplace of the app store.

I don’t see the video game industry opting out of ESRB ratings anytime soon. A much more likely situation is one where Apple decides to adopt the practice, too. ESRB ratings might help mom’s decide what games are right for their children, but it also hampers the indie gaming industry. And while for serious gamers this might not make much of a difference it’s still interesting to see what that T for Teen sticker really means.