ESRB Ratings Process
The ESRB rating system applies to video games and mobile apps whether packaged in a box 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.
Packaged or Boxed Video Games
Packaged or 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 DVD 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 DVD submitted, the DVD 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 that will be made available solely via download or will be otherwise accessible only online (like web browser games or PC-based and mobile apps, for example) are rated using a "Short Form" rating process.
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 or the sharing of a user's physical location or personal information. Finally the developer indicates whether the game has a minimum age requirement. 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 Rating Summaries.
A portion of games rated in this manner are tested by ESRB shortly after they become publicly available to ensure that appropriate ratings have been assigned. In the event content was not fully or accurately disclosed by the developer, either the rating displayed will be promptly corrected or, in egregious cases, the game may be removed from the store and/or its rating revoked.
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.