The Creation of the ESRB – Gaming Historian

In the early ’90s, a handful of violent
video games sparked a national debate
that changed the video game industry.
Parents and advocacy groups rallied.
They argued that video game
violence had gone too far.
And the U.S. Government agreed.
So in 1993 the Senate
gave the industry an ultimatum:
regulate yourselves or we’ll do it for you.
From that order, the Entertainment
Software Rating Board was born,
more commonly known as the ESRB.
You can see the effects of it
on any video game you buy today.
This is the story of a few games that
permanently changed the industry
and the way we buy video games.
In the mid ’80s and early ’90s, rap went mainstream.
MTV came into its own.
Cartoons got edgier.
But as the entertainment industry pushed the envelope,
politicians and advocacy groups pushed back.
They wanted to protect children
from inappropriate lyrics and images.
So music, television, and even video games
came under fire.
There were Senate hearings
to discuss so-called “porn rock,”
where everyone from John Denver to
Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider
defended the music industry.
A group known as the Parent’s Music Resource Center
created a list of 15 songs that
they said should be banned from radio airplay,
known as the “Filthy Fifteen.”
The group successfully campaigned
for parental advisory labels on music.
TV didn’t have it easy either.
REPORTER: “Beavis and Butt-head”
is MTV’s most popular show,
drawing four times MTV’s average audience.
But some don’t find the two protagonists poignant.
They think they’re dangerous.
Breakin’ the law! Breakin’ the law!
BEAVIS: (giggles)
Let’s burn something.
REPORTER: Just last week, an Ohio mother claimed
her five-year-old son set fire to his family’s trailer
and got the idea watching Beavis and
Butt-head playing with a lighter.
His two-year-old sister died in the fire.
NORM: In the wake of the controversy,
MTV moved “Beavis and Butt-head” to a later time slot
and put a disclaimer before each episode.
There were also Senate hearings
to discuss television violence.
Meanwhile, video games
evolved at an unprecedented rate.
They became more colorful and complex,
players’ capabilities expanded
and the storylines grew.
All of a sudden, players weren’t
fighting abstract pixelated enemies,
and that became a problem.
Ultimately, three games sparked the controversy:
Mortal Kombat, Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers.
Mortal Kombat was the most
commercially successful game.
Developed by Midway, it hit arcades in 1992
and was the number-one arcade game that year.
But it really gained notoriety in 1993
when Acclaim Entertainment
launched a $10 million campaign
to celebrate its multi-format release
on to the home console scene,
dubbed “Mortal Monday.”
There were sweepstakes and
commercials to promote the event.
They even played previews in movie theaters.
The campaign brought a lot of attention to the game
but it wasn’t all good.
Suddenly, a lot more people were
aware of the game’s violent content.
Sega’s version was much more graphic than Nintendo’s.
By putting in a code, players could
unlock blood during combat.
Sega also kept in the gruesome finishing moves.
You could decapitate an enemy and
watch their spinal cord dangle,
or rip an opponent’s heart out of his chest.
Meanwhile, Nintendo replaced all the blood with sweat
and toned down the finishing moves
As a result, Sega’s version easily outsold Nintendo’s.
Then there was Night Trap,
a full-motion video game released on the Sega CD.
Although significantly less popular than Mortal Kombat,
Night Trap was just as controversial.
Developed by Digital Pictures as a
campy parody of a vampire movie,
the player’s goal is to protect a slumber party
of scantily clad women from alien vampires.
But it got the attention of politicians and parents
for its depiction of violence against women.
Finally, there was Lethal Enforcers,
a 1992 shooting game that used digitized
photos rather than cartoony images.
And, just like Mortal Kombat,
it got its start in the arcades.
Developed by Konami, players take on the role
of a police officer who is fighting a crime spree.
Console versions were released following year
and came with a revolver-style
gun to shoot down enemies.
At the height of the controversy,
console versions of Lethal
Enforcers weren’t even out yet.
But ads for the game featuring
the Konami Justifier gun
caught the government’s attention.
As the public became more
concerned about violent video games,
some video game companies
tried to mitigate the problem.
Nintendo had strict content policies
and they’d been in place for a while.
They put limits on things like
graphic depictions of death,
sexual content and profanity,
which explains why their version of
Mortal Kombat was less graphic than Sega’s.
For their part, Sega actually had its own rating system.
Sega’s Videogame Rating Council divided
its games among three age-based categories:
GA for general audiences,
MA-13 for mature audiences,
and MA-17 for adults.
Mortal Kombat was rated MA-13.
Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers were both rated MA-17.
Sega introduced the ratings in the spring of 1993,
after getting heat for the graphic games
being released on their consoles.
They also publicly encouraged other video
game companies to rate their games as well.
The suggestion infuriated Nintendo.
They didn’t buy the idea that
Sega created its rating system
as a way to inform parents and protect children.
Peter Main, Nintendo’s marketing director,
accused Sega of throwing up, quote,
“smokescreens to justify the marketing
of increasingly violent games.”
Nintendo also suggested that
rating a game like Night Trap MA-17
actually made it *more*
appealing to young kids.
But regardless of Sega’s motives,
the ratings didn’t hold much clout.
A lot of customers didn’t even know about the ratings,
and the ones who did found the three-
category system too vague to be helpful.
In short, parents had no idea
exactly how violent a game was
until they saw it for themselves.
In their own living rooms.
And a lot of them didn’t like what they saw.
And that feeling wasn’t limited
to just a few upset parents.
Researchers, advocacy groups and politicians
from both sides of the aisle were concerned.
At the time, a growing body of evidence suggested
that television violence led children
toward more aggressive behavior.
A lot of people worried that
video games would do the same.
Maybe even worse.
California’s Attorney General Dan Lungren
argued that video games could be more
harmful than violent television or music,
since video games are
interactive forms of entertainment.
In a letter to leaders in the video game industry,
he wrote that violent video games have a, quote,
“deadening, desensitizing impact
on young impressionable minds.”
As for the other side of the argument…
well, video games didn’t have many defenders.
Even industry insiders were concerned about how
violent video games might affect children.
But many questioned whether
government intervention was the answer.
They didn’t want children to be harmed,
but they didn’t want censorship either.
Public concern was growing
and the industry’s attempts
to police itself weren’t working.
Then in late 1993,
something totally unremarkable happened.
A 9-year-old boy asked his parents
for a copy of Mortal Kombat.
They almost gave it to him,
until the boy’s father did some research on the game
and became upset with what he saw.
In fact, Bill Anderson was so upset
that he discussed it with his boss,
Senator Joe Lieberman.
And that’s where the story gets a lot more remarkable.
Sen. Lieberman was alarmed by what he’d heard.
So he did something about it.
Just in time for the 1993 holiday buying season,
Sens. Lieberman and Herb Kohl
spearheaded a joint congressional hearing
on violence in video games.
They proposed legislation calling for a rating system
that would help buyers gauge a
game’s violence and sexual content.
The senators were clear that they
wanted the video game industry
to create its own independent ratings system,
but that if they refused,
the government would step in.
Not everyone liked the idea.
Some people called it censorship.
And a few maintained that the industry
was doing a good job policing itself.
The other side was much more skeptical.
Many wanted video game producers to just
stop making games that featured graphic violence.
Others didn’t trust the industry at all.
And it was that environment of distrust, concern,
and a demand for change
that heaped so much attention on
the heated congressional hearings.
During the hearing, a packed crowd watched the
most violent portions of Mortal Kombat and Night Trap.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman held
the Konami Justifier for all to see
as photographers snapped photos.
The researchers and advocacy groups testified
that the video game industry was lining its pockets
at the expense of America’s children.
No one–least of all, the senators–
held back.
Marilyn Droz of the National
Coalition on Television Violence
told the senators that the industry
shouldn’t be allowed to regulate itself.
She compared the idea to, quote,
“leaving the troublemaker in charge of the classroom.”
Parker Page of the Children’s Television
Resource and Education Center
testified that research on television violence showed
that violent screen images led
children to more aggressive behavior,
made them less cooperative,
and more afraid of the world outside their homes.
Page said that since video games were
still relatively new and constantly evolving,
there wasn’t enough research to
definitively show how they impacted children.
But he did say that the few studies available showed
that violent video games had the same
negative effects as violent television.
As he wrapped up his testimony,
Page took a final swing.
PAGE: Video games that allow young players
to participate in heinous acts of cruelty,
and inhumanity
should not be portrayed, regardless of profits.
NORM: But the hearing wasn’t
just about violence in general.
Panelists took the industry to task for
its portrayal of violence against women
and claimed that female video game characters
were frequently portrayed as victims or sex objects.
And sometimes both.
Eugene Provenzo, a professor
at the University of Miami,
said that his research on
America’s most popular video games
showed that violence was a major theme.
He also noted that many games featured
scenarios in which women were kidnapped.
He pointed out that *sometimes*
men were kidnapped, too.
But they were never rescued by women.
But no one hit this point home quite as hard
as Marilyn Droz.
She talked about video games
as an exciting new technology.
One that if done responsibly
could actually prepare kids for the 21st century.
She claimed that in the early days of video games
boys and girls played them with equal interest.
But that as games became more geared toward boys,
girls missed out.
DROZ: Girls are being trained in dressing Barbie dolls.
And boys are being trained in technology.
This has to change.
As a mother, as a parent,
as a woman, and as an American citizen,
I’m stating this needs to be changed.
NORM: She noted that very few female video
game characters had much control or power.
Not long after the senators
watched footage from Night Trap,
Droz looked around the packed
room and asked a question.
DROZ: I mean, how would you
like to have a teenage daughter
go out on a date with someone
who’s just watched or played
three hours of that game?
NORM: The testimonies were damning
and showed a united front
against the video game industry.
One might expect that the video game
panelists would be equally united.
After all,
they were on the same side.
The atmosphere changed when
the video game leaders testified.
As representatives from Sega and
Nintendo scrambled for moral high ground,
they turned on one another.
Remember, Sega had its own rating system,
but it was vague and the general
public didn’t know much about it.
Nintendo had the real advantage.
Thanks to their guidelines,
their version of Mortal Kombat was
more family-friendly than Sega’s version.
And, as they were quick to point out,
they had nothing to do with Night Trap.
It’s equally important to consider *who*
represented Sega and Nintendo at the hearing.
Nintendo chose Howard Lincoln,
who at the time was Senior Vice
President at Nintendo of America.
Lincoln was a talented lawyer
who proved his value during Nintendo’s successful
legal battle against Universal over Donkey Kong.
Lincoln’s testimony was polished.
He spoke with confidence.
He admitted that Nintendo wasn’t perfect.
But maintained that it had, and always would,
make an effort to create fun, appropriate games.
Their games would never
feature gratuitous sex or violence
because Nintendo’s own guidelines wouldn’t permit it.
In a clear dig at Sega,
he stated that Night Trap, quote,
“simply has no place in our society.”
None of this let Nintendo off the hook.
But what Lincoln said, and the way he said it,
seemed to resonate with the senators.
By contrast, Sega of America was represented by
their Vice President of Marketing Communications,
Bill White.
He looked less comfortable than Lincoln.
He occasionally stumbled over his words.
He came across as defensive,
and with good reason.
Sega produced more graphic games than Nintendo,
and it was clear to Bill White that he was in the hot seat.
White’s main point was that video
games weren’t just for children.
He pointed out that the average
Sega CD user was 22 years old,
and that the average Sega
Genesis user was 19 years old.
He argued that adults played video games too,
and that over time the industry
would attract more players of all ages.
Although White made some good points,
he was in an unenviable position.
DORGAN: And I honestly, Mr. White, I–
you know, I read your statement
and I honestly think
that you don’t understand
what we’re talking about here.
Let me tell you why.
NORM: To say the senators were skeptical
of Sega’s motives would be putting it mildly.
Sen. Lieberman called Sega’s rating system, quote,
“a fig leaf to cover a lot of transgressions,”
and asked the company to apply some self-control.
Sen. Byron Dorgan pressed Bill White
on the rating system age categories.
DORGAN: And, and do you view those, uh…
over the age of 13 as mature?
WHITE: There’s, there’s three designations
that the independent rating council chooses
to designate product. It’s MA-13,
appropriate for teenagers and older,
but not for young children with parental–
– But does it have the
word “mature” attached to that?
– Yes, I believe it does.
– And so the presumption is
those over 13 years of age are mature?
– Yes.
– Are you kidding me?
– With parental discretion.
– I’m referring now to–
– What are you thinking about–
– the MA-13 title.
– that you’re suggesting that–
NORM: The senators even tried using
Sega’s own policies against them.
LIEBERMAN: As always, Sega will
not approve products which contain,
A-1) material that encourages criminality of any kind.
making a game and selling it that
encourages a kid to point a gun
at a television set
and rewards
his success, or her success,
by increasing the firepower of the gun
encouraging criminality? I mean,
we’re all aware of this incredible outbreak of
gun violence in our country.
Is it responsible?
Let me put it another way:
is it within the terms of the guidelines?
NORM: Lieberman argued that Sega was
marketing its mature and adult games to children.
He proved his point using a Sega pamphlet
which contained a blurb on Night Trap
alongside blurbs for children’s games,
with nothing to distinguish the games for adults
from the games for kids.
He drove the point home a moment later when
he played a Sega commercial for Mortal Kombat.
According to Sega’s own rating system,
the game was inappropriate for children under 13.
But Lieberman said that the hero
of the commercial looked under 13
and that the ad seemed clearly geared toward children.
But no one shut Sega down quite as hard,
or as effectively,
as Nintendo’s Howard Lincoln.
LINCOLN: Let me make just a couple of other points.
I can’t sit here and allow you to be told
that somehow the video game
business has been transformed today
from children to adults.
It hasn’t been, and Mr. White,
who is a former Nintendo employee,
knows the demographics as well as I do.
Furthermore, I can’t let you sit here
and buy this nonsense that this Sega
Night Trap game was somehow
only meant for adults.
The fact of the matter is
this is a copy of the packaging.
There was no rating on this game
at all when the game was introduced.
Small children bought this at Toys “R” Us
and he knows that as well as I do.
When they started getting heat about this game,
then they adopted the rating
system and put ratings on it.
But today, just as I’m sitting here,
you can go into a Toys “R” Us
store, or a Walmart, or a Kmart,
and you know as well as I do
that you can buy this product
and no one,
certainly no sales clerk at retail,
is going to challenge you.
NORM: Howard Lincoln also
shot down Bill White’s assertion
that Sega had no control over
violent or objectionable ads
produced by licensees.
Sen. Lieberman ultimately
praised Nintendo for being, quote,
“a damn sight better than the competition.”
Toward the end, Bill White was clearly frustrated.
Sega was being painted as pure evil
and Nintendo was escaping unscathed.
It was all too much for him.
None of his arguments had been very effective.
Showing side-by-side gameplay
footage of Nintendo and Sega games,
which showed similar levels of violence,
didn’t resonate quite like he’d hoped it would.
He needed people to know
that Nintendo games contained violent content, too.
And he wanted nothing more than to
knock Howard Lincoln down a notch.
So, White took another swing.
But thanks to an embarrassing slip of the tongue,
it didn’t land.
WHITE: I may also point out
that Sega produces product
a rapid fire machine gun
that uses the same technology, to our
understanding, with several games available.
And they have no rating on that product
to suggest that product’s for adults.
LIEBERMAN: Nintendo produces it, you’re saying?
– Yes.
– Yep.
NORM: The congressional hearing made a
public spectacle out of the console wars.
But it did more than just bruise
the egos of the industry leaders.
It also got them to publicly agree to,
and move forward with,
a rating system.
LIEBERMAN: The best thing you can do,
not only for this country but for yourselves,
is to self-regulate.
And believe me, it’s not only gonna be
important to our kids, it’s gonna be important
to the ultimate credibility and success of your business.
The congressional hearing drew
a lot of attention from the media.
Suddenly, the most violent portions of Mortal Kombat
and Night Trap were common knowledge.
Some people didn’t like what they saw.
“We don’t need companies to put
warning labels on video games
as they have now offered to do at
the point of a senatorial shotgun,
nor do we need another
government entity policing the industry.
All we need is one teensy regulation.
All video game inventors must use the faces
of their own children on their characters.
So let’s get personal, guys.
Let’s put your kids out there in that four-way
intersection as see how fast you swerve.”
Sally Kalson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
One week after the hearing,
Toys “R” Us pulled Night Trap from its shelves.
FAO Schwarz soon followed.
That same week,
Sega announced that Lethal Enforcers
would be available at computer software stores
but not at toy stores.
In January of 1994,
Sega withdrew Night Trap from the market.
Tom Zito, the president of Digital Pictures,
which made Night Trap, spoke out.
He said the game had been unfairly
attacked over a tiny excerpt of footage.
He told the New York Times
“while it is certainly not an
appropriate game for an 8-year-old,
Night Trap is actually very benign
and is designed as a parody of a vampire movie.”
But his defense didn’t seem to matter.
Across America, people were
fired up about violent entertainment
and they wanted something done.
“Imagine an intruder entering your home
seizing your children and forcing
them to watch 8,000 murders
and a hundred thousand acts of violence.
A monstrous crime? Yes!
A crime that would do untold
psychological harm to your children.
No question about it.
Wake up, parents!
Chances are that *your* child
is the victim I just described.”
Sen. Earnest “Fritz” Hollings.
On February 3, 1994,
just a few months after the December hearing,
Sens. Lieberman and Kohl introduced
the Video Game Rating Act of 1994.
The bill would allow the government
to create a five-member commission,
appointed by the President of the United States,
that would help the industry create a rating system.
The industry was given a deadline of just one year
to pull together or face government intervention.
But working together was easier said than done.
The Senate hearing had been rough.
At times, it was just plain embarrassing.
Nintendo and Sega had always
been vicious competitors.
But their battle during the hearing
took their animosity to another level.
That spring, the anger boiled over once again.
It started with a news report which revealed that
Nintendo had provided a congressional committee
with a tape of the most violent portions of Night Trap
prior to the December hearing.
Sega of America president Tom Kalinske
spoke out via a press release.
“I’m really amazed that Nintendo
would so irresponsibly drag retailers
and the entire video game industry through the mud
in their efforts to slow our momentum.”
But if Nintendo was supposed to feel ashamed,
it didn’t work.
Sega may have been thrown under the bus,
but Nintendo thought they deserved it.
Nintendo felt that none of this–
the public outrage, the government intervention–
would have happened if Sega had just
kept graphic violence out of their games.
Howard Lincoln wanted to respond
in a way that perfectly summed up
how sorry he felt for Sega.
So, he drafted his own press release.
“Dear Tom,
Roses are red, violets are blue.
So you had a bad day.
All my best, Howard.”
Sega and Nintendo would never get along.
But if there was one thing they
disliked more than each other,
it was the thought of government intervention.
During the follow up congressional
hearings in March of 1994,
Jack Heistand of the newly-
formed Industry Rating Council
announced that seven companies,
including Sega and Nintendo,
would comply with a rating system,
just in time for the holiday season.
What’s more, the ratings wouldn’t
just appear on a game’s packaging.
The groups agreed to include ratings
in ads and other marketing material.
They committed to a customer
and retailer education campaign
and promised to make the ratings
easy for customers to understand.
They said that the ratings board would be independent,
and that they’d seek public input as they finalized
their guidelines and ratings categories.
They also stated that there would be tough sanctions
for any company that got a rating fraudulently
by, for example, withholding critical information.
But they stood firm on some issues.
Jack Heistand told the senators that the
ratings board wouldn’t be in the business
of regulating game content.
In other words, they could give
customers information about a game,
but they wouldn’t tell software developers
what to include or remove from a game.
When Sen. Lieberman asked about going back
and rating all previously published games,
the group stood firm once again.
HEISTAND: In total there are probably four or five thousand titles in the marketplace today
and there are 50,000 retail outlets.
For us to try and go back and rate those products,
sticker all those products,
would put such a burden
on accomplishing what we’re trying to do for
the next six months, it’s virtually impossible.
NORM: The fact that so many video game
companies were working together
on a rating system was significant.
Together, the companies accounted
for 60 percent of video game sales.
But the senators wondered whether that was enough.
KOHL: As I understood you to say,
or perhaps you can, uh…
enlighten us, you do not, or you cannot say today
that you represent the entire industry.
– That’s correct.
– So isn’t that going to be a
problem that needs to be addressed successfully,
again, as we move towards the route
toward what our goal is, which is to
assure the American people that we have
resolved the problem?
– Absolutely.
– Isn’t that a problem that needs to be addressed?
NORM: The group was powerful,
but they couldn’t do it alone.
After all, what would stop some
other video game company–
one that wasn’t part of the group–
from making its own unrated games?
In a word: money.
Everyone knew that there needed to
be some sort of financial disincentive
for companies that wanted to sell unrated games.
Going around the rating system would
have to be not just morally irresponsible,
but financially irresponsible.
They needed help from the biggest names in retail.
And they got it.
KERBY: Upon implementation of
an industry-wide rating system,
Walmart will only purchase video games
that have gone through the rating process
and received a rating.
Thank you.
LIEBERMAN: Mr. Kerby, by congressional
standards, that was an unusually short
statement, but I would add
it was unusually significant.
And I appreciate it very much.
SULLIVAN: Once the industry-wide
rating system is established,
Toys “R” Us would also only purchase rated games.
Thank you.
– We’re on a roll!
– [laughs]
– That’s great. Thank you.
NORM: With the support of major retailers
and the main players in the video game industry,
the rating system moved forward.
When they reconvened in July,
the Industry Ratings Council had a new name:
the Interactive Digital Software Association.
They had more video game companies onboard, too.
What started less than a year before
as outrage over violent games
was quickly working toward a resolution.
At first, Sega pitched that the
IDSA use their rating system.
But Nintendo disagreed.
The idea of using a competitor’s rating
system on their products was too much.
And, as many people outside
the industry had pointed out,
Sega’s rating system was
vague and otherwise flawed.
So the group agreed on an entirely new rating system.
LIEBERMAN: Today is a turning point
in the battle to protect our kids
and re-establish some standards.
Today, the video game industry
is announcing the establishment
of an independent rating system
that promises to give parents
for the first time a clear idea of which
video games are good for their kids
and which should stay out of their homes.
NORM: And so, the Entertainment Software
Rating Board, or ESRB, was born.
The independent group came up
with five categories to rate games,
based on help from parents, researchers,
and child development experts.
Early Childhood,
Kids to Adults,
and Adults Only.
This also included 17 content descriptors.
Developers had to pay a fee and
send a videotape of pertinent content
to get their game rated by the ESRB.
While this was all voluntary,
the console makers could
refuse a title if it wasn’t rated.
Just as they promised it would,
the ESRB began rating games
prior to the 1994 holiday season.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
During the July hearing, Sen. Lieberman
said that violence in video games
wasn’t going away.
As proof, he disgustedly shared
details of a new first-person shooter
called Doom.
Overall, the senators were pleased with the ESRB.
They wanted the industry to regulate itself.
And it had.
In response, Sens. Lieberman and Kohl
shelved the Video Game Rating Act of 1994.
Over the years, the ESRB has evolved with the industry.
In 2005, they created the E10+ category,
and today there are 30 content descriptors.
They’ve put more teeth behind their sanctions
and created public awareness
campaigns to educate parents.
Since its creation, Sen. Lieberman
has called the ESRB ratings, quote,
“the most comprehensive in the media industry.”
But the ESRB is not unique.
In Europe, you have the
Pan European Game Information system,
also known as PEGI.
It was created in 2003 to help unify a
number of national ratings with a single system.
In 2002, Japan created the
Computer Entertainment Rating Organization,
which assigns game a letter grade of A, B, C, D, or Z.
An “A” rating means the game is suitable for all ages,
while a “Z” is for 18 or older.
They also include content
descriptors in the form of pictures.
For example, a ghost icon means
there are themes of horror in the game.
While I do believe the public outrage over
graphic video games was a bit overblown,
putting a rating system on video
games was, in the end, a good thing.
There’s nothing wrong with informing the
public about what kind of content a game has.
And the ESRB has helped legitimize
video games as an industry
and as a form of entertainment.
That’s all for this episode of Gaming Historian.
Thanks for watching.
Funding for Gaming Historian is
provided in part by supporters on Patreon.
Thank you.

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