The ESRB Isn’t There for Us

Some weeks ago, Gaines and I wrote about GTA 5 in what would become our most popular post. Among the comments, a particular trend began to emerge, namely invoking the ESRB as a method of parental control. It’s that particular argument that I’d like to talk about today, the fact that the ESRB is touted as the end-all-be all of knowledge about video games provided to customers.

Because the ESRB isn’t there for us. It really isn’t.

Rather, the ESRB is part of a particular historical development of self-regulation in which customers are, if anything, rather passive players. It’s that particular history that I’d like to briefly talk about today.

A history of self-regulation should begin, at the very least, in Medieval times. During that period, self-regulation was, largely, the domain of guilds. Be they populated by merchants or artisans, the purpose of guilds was to ensure the continuation of the trade through various means. Guilds set quality standards, ensured uniform apprentice training, and helped regulate the economy by controlling the price of their wares.

Already, we see the beginnings of self-regulation. Behind the precepts of guilds was the idea that the members of a particular domain were the ones best equipped to decide what was best for their own industries. Guilds, if anything, were at the forefront when it came to creating particular technocracies that even today remain powerfully influential.

As time went by, self-regulation made its way into the realm of professions such as medicine, engineering, and law. These professions took their inspiration from Medieval guilds to create their own codes of conduct that regulated the everyday work that they did. If anything, the self-regulation became even more stringent and institutionalized. What self-regulation meant became increasingly well-defined. Self-regulated professions were entrusted with the task of setting training and competency standards, as well as developing professional codes of ethics in order to license its practitioners.

Up to this point, self-regulation was largely an internal processes. By this I mean that the targets of self-regulation were the members of said professions and industries that were self-regulated. However, the arrival of new media caused a reversal where self-regulation was targeted outwardly.

The 1930s saw the appearance of the Hays Code – which was later revised and became today’s MPAA movie rating system – that, for the first time, provided a series of ratings for Hollywood movies. The Hays Code was originally developed in response to political pressures that threatened to create censorship measures that would regulate the type of content that could be present in films.

There’s a key different between the Hays Code and the preceding examples of self-regulation. Where guilds and professions aimed to regulate the training and work standards of their domains, the Hays Code is aimed solely at avoiding political interference. The Hays Code makes no mention of professional ethics or training standards at all.

One of the most public examples of this were the Congressional PMRC hearings in the United States. In the mid-1980s, a conservative segment of the population took offense at the lyrics found in certain musical genres. Overall, the stakes were similar to that of the 1930s’ Hays Code: an industry was faced with possible regulation from the outside, and in response volunteered a rating system. Out of the PMRC hearings came the “Parental Advisory” stickers that we’re all familiar with today.

Again, the RIAA’s espousing of self-regulation makes no mention of professional ethics or training standards at all. Rather, it’s aimed solely at preventing outside interference that could impose unwanted regulations onto the industry.

Self-regulation was extended to the video game industry in the 1990s. During the first half of the decade, video games came into the limelight where games like Mortal Kombat and Doom were the focus of political hearings concerned with video game violence. The result? A rating system that provides customers with content information and deflects the attention of politicians.

This very quick history of self-regulation reveals a few trends. First, there’s been a move away from internalization and towards externalization. By this I mean that the targets of self-regulation are no longer the members of self-regulated industries but politicians and the general public.

Second, there’s been an abandonment of precepts setting industry standards in favour of a focus on isolating self-regulated industries from the political process. The Hays Code, the RIAA ratings, and the ESRB ratings do not regulate the ways in which video games are made. Rather, they rely on ideologies of freedom of information and choice to avoid political regulation.

Third, they place the burden of enforcement on content consumers rather than on content creators. This liberates video game companies to create whatever games they want – content be damned – in a cultural context that is becoming increasingly socially conservative. After all, if you give consumers information, then they’re the ones that have to make a choice.

The issue here isn’t whether the ESRB is good or bad. Rather, I wanted to briefly talk about the effects of a particular historical trajectory on an industry. I should add that, though I’m critical of it, I’m not against the ESRB. As commenters have said, it provides valuable information to people purchasing games. It’s also true, as Gaines remarked, that video game retailers have a high level of compliance with the ESRB. So in most aspects, it appears to be working, even though compliance is largely voluntary and there’s no real way to known where video games end up after they’re purchased. After all, how useful is the ESRB if M-rated games are purchased by adults and then given to 12 year old kids?

However, whatever usefulness it has isn’t really the point of the ESRB. Rather, the ESRB exists to deflect political interference and regulation away from the industry and towards consumers. This is a move that we see everywhere in this particular historical moment where deregulation is espoused by both politics and economics.

As far as video games are concerned, however, the fact that the ESRB is useful and does provide valuable information doesn’t excuse this move. Does this mean we should abandon the ESRB? No. However, it does mean that new participatory methods of game design might be advisable.

The ESRB might not be for us, but we – people who love the medium – are definitely for whom it should be.

About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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