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Super ESRB Advanced

Shift_esrb_2 Manhunt 2 is apparently a bad game. By bad I mean not fun...as in bad gameplay, bad graphics, bad story, and unskippable bad cutscenes. I haven't played it myself, so I can't verify Manhunt 2's badness, but a consensus seems to have formed. 1UP gave it a 4 out of 10.

Nevertheless, the internet, my newspaper and my local television stations are abuzz with news about the game. No surprise. I won't rehash the Manhunt 2 controversy. If you're reading a blog called The Brainy Gamer, you probably already know all about it.

What you may know less about is how the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) system actually works. I had a vague idea, but a quick bit of digging has schooled me in the ways of the raters. What follows is my attempt to summarize the ratings process, highlighting crucial aspects that may not be widely understood.

Please note that I make no judgment here about the effectiveness or fairness of the ESRB. Given all the hoopla surrounding Manhunt 2, I simply thought it would be useful to shed a bit of light on a rating system  that clearly plays a pivotal role in how  games are designed, marketed and sold in this country. Most of what follows comes directly from the ESRB's procedural guidelines.

  • Game publishers tell the raters what to look for. Prior to a game being released to the public, game publishers submit responses to a detailed, written questionnaire (often supplementing responses with lyric sheets, scripts, etc.) specifying exactly what pertinent content (see descriptors below) will be in their game.
  • Raters do not actually play the games. Publishers must provide a videotape or DVD which captures all pertinent content, including the most extreme instances, across all relevant categories, including but not limited to violence, language, sex, controlled substances and gambling. Pertinent content that is not playable (i.e., "locked-out") but will exist in the code on the final game disc must also be disclosed. The video footage is reviewed by at least three specially trained game raters.
  • Raters assign both a rating and a list of content descripters. Each rater recommends an appropriate rating category and content descriptors. Raters will then further discuss the game until they reach consensus on a final recommendation.
  • The final rating is determined by ESRB staff. ESRB staff will review the final rating recommendation and rater feedback, conduct a parity examination where appropriate to maintain consistency in rating assignments, and issue a certificate with the official rating assignment to the game's publisher.
  • Publishers may accept, revise, or appeal. The publisher may either accept the rating as final or revise the game's content and resubmit it to the ESRB, at which time the process starts anew. Publishers also have the ability to appeal an ESRB rating assignment to an Appeals Board made up of publishers, retailers and other professionals.

ESRB Content Descriptors:

  • Alcohol Reference - Reference to and/or images of alcoholic beverages
  • Animated Blood - Discolored and/or unrealistic depictions of blood
  • Blood - Depictions of blood
  • Blood and Gore - Depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts
  • Cartoon Violence - Violent actions involving cartoon-like situations and characters. May include violence where a character is unharmed after the action has been inflicted
  • Comic Mischief - Depictions or dialogue involving slapstick or suggestive humor
  • Crude Humor - Depictions or dialogue involving  vulgar antics, including “bathroom” humor
  • Drug Reference - Reference to and/or images of illegal drugs
  • Fantasy Violence - Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or non-human characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life
  • Intense Violence - Graphic and realistic-looking depictions of physical conflict. May involve extreme and/or realistic blood, gore, weapons and depictions of human injury and death
  • Language - Mild to moderate use of profanity
  • Lyrics - Mild references to profanity, sexuality, violence, alcohol or drug use in music
  • Mature Humor - Depictions or dialogue involving "adult" humor, including sexual references
  • Nudity - Graphic or prolonged depictions of nudity
  • Partial Nudity - Brief and/or mild depictions of nudity
  • Real Gambling - Player can gamble, including betting or wagering real cash or currency
  • Sexual Content - Non-explicit depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including partial nudity
  • Sexual Themes - References to sex or sexuality
  • Sexual Violence - Depictions of rape or other violent sexual acts
  • Simulated Gambling - Player can gamble without betting or wagering real cash or currency
  • Strong Language - Explicit and/or frequent use of profanity
  • Strong Lyrics - Explicit and/or frequent references to profanity, sex, violence, alcohol or drug use in music
  • Strong Sexual Content - Explicit and/or frequent depictions of sexual behavior, possibly including nudity
  • Suggestive Themes - Mild provocative references or materials
  • Tobacco Reference - Reference to and/or images of tobacco products
  • Use of Drugs - The consumption or use of illegal drugs
  • Use of Alcohol - The consumption of alcoholic beverages
  • Use of Tobacco - The consumption of tobacco products
  • Violence - Scenes involving aggressive conflict. May contain bloodless dismemberment
  • Violent References - References to violent acts

When a content descriptor is preceded by the term "Mild," it is intended to convey low frequency, intensity or severity of the content it modifies.        

Content descriptors are not intended to be a listing of every type of content one might encounter in the course of playing a game.

Online games that include user-generated content (e.g., chat, maps, skins) carry the notice "Game Experience May Change During Online Play" to warn consumers that content created by players of the game has not been rated by the ESRB.