The ESRB rating system applies to video games and apps whether physical (boxed) at retail or directly downloadable to a game system, PC or mobile device. ESRB employs rating processes that are tailored to the specific platform on which the rated product will be accessible.
Physical (Boxed) Video Games
Physical (boxed) games typically sold at retail are rated using a "Long Form" process whereby ESRB raters evaluate the content of each game in advance of its public release. In these cases the publisher must provide two key forms of
content disclosure as their game is being finalized:
- a completed ESRB online questionnaire detailing the game's
pertinent content, which essentially translates to anything that may factor into the game's rating. This includes not only the content itself
(violence, sexual content, language, controlled substances, gambling, etc.), but other relevant factors such as context, reward systems and the degree of
player control; and
- a video that captures all pertinent content, including typical gameplay, missions, and cutscenes, along with the most extreme
instances of content across all relevant categories. Pertinent content that is not playable (i.e., "locked out") but will exist in the game code on the final
game disc must also be disclosed.
Once checked to ensure that all pertinent content disclosed in the completed questionnaire is reflected in the video submitted, the video is reviewed by a
group of at least three trained raters who collectively deliberate about what rating should be assigned. Once the raters reach consensus on the appropriate
Rating Category and Content Descriptors, ESRB staff reviews the raters' recommendation and may conduct a parity review to maintain consistency in rating
assignments. A Rating Summary is finalized shortly thereafter, providing additional
detail about the key factors that contributed to the rating assignment, including specific examples of game content or attributes. The final rating is then
issued to the publisher, which may either accept it as final or revise the game's content and resubmit it to the ESRB, at which time the process starts anew.
When a game is released or shortly thereafter, ESRB reviews the packaging (both interior and exterior) to make sure the rating is displayed accurately and
in accordance with ESRB requirements. ESRB staff also play-tests a variety of games after they are released - including games that generate consumer inquiries
to ESRB and those that receive broad consumer exposure - to verify that the content disclosure provided to ESRB was accurate and complete.
Digitally-Delivered Games and Apps
Games and apps that are available solely via download or accessible only online may be rated using either a "Short Form" process or via a similar process implemented by the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC).
Publishers of these digitally delivered games and apps complete a series of multiple-choice
questions that address content across relevant categories (as described above). The
questionnaire also asks questions related to a game's interactive components, such as the
enabling of user interactions via the internet, the sharing of a user's physical location,
if it enables the purchase of digital goods, and/or if unrestricted Internet access is provided. The
responses to these questions automatically determine the game's Rating Category, Content
Descriptors and Interactive Elements, which are issued immediately upon completion of the
questionnaire. Because these products are rated by an automated process they do not receive
Due to the volume of digitally delivered games and apps, ESRB works with developers, the
mobile community at large and storefronts that display ESRB ratings to identify rating issues
whenever possible. This augments ESRB's own testing of digitally delivered games and apps to
ensure that appropriate ratings have been assigned. In the event content was not fully or
accurately disclosed by the developer, the rating displayed will be promptly corrected or, in
egregious cases, the game may be removed from the store.
Downloadable content (DLC) that will be appended to a previously-rated product need only be submitted to ESRB for rating if its content exceeds that which
is in the existing "core" product. Otherwise, the rating assigned to the core product is applicable to the DLC as well. Where, however, DLC content exceeds
the rating assigned to the core product, it must be submitted to ESRB and a different rating may be assigned to the DLC.