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The Daily Tar Heel

ESRB Ratings Grade Game Age Appeal

And when sexual content is clearly identified on the package of a video game -- along with violence, profanity and other forms of mature content -- that belief is put to the test.

Since 1994, video- and computer-game manufactures have labeled each one of their products with one of several age-specific ratings determined by the independent Entertainment Software Ratings Board. The ESRB system includes an early childhood rating, a 6-and-up E (everyone) rating, a 13-and-up T (teen) rating, a 17-and-up M (mature) rating and an adults-only designation.

In an industry originally geared toward the kiddie market, video games receiving an E rating continue to be the norm.

But recent sales figures show that racier games are gaining ground quickly, and some experts say the rise in sales for games with adult or teen ratings are causing game developers to design games with a more mature ESRB rating in mind.

"Overall I think that game developers are very conscious of what the content is in their games," said Wes Nihei, editor-in-chief of Gamepro magazine. "They're putting it in there with the full knowledge that that's what it is."

A representative from ESRB said that developers don't have direct contact with the organization over a game's rating but that developers sometimes resubmit a different version of the game in order to receive a desired rating.

And Nihei said that with developers aware of the rating a game is likely to receive, they are beginning to design and market games with the intention of getting a T or M rating.

Based on recent sales trends, such an approach could be a profitable move.

The percentage of gaming sales for M-rated games has jumped from 6 percent to 13 percent over the past two years, according to the NPD group, a market analyst company.

In addition to the increase in M-rated game sales, 25 percent of gaming sales for the 2001 calendar year were for T-rated games, according to the Interactive Digital Software Association.

Leading the way is the M-rated "Grand Theft Auto 3" -- the top-selling game of the past 12 months -- and its equally racy sequel, "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," which already has sold 1.2 million copies since its Oct. 29 release.

Before the ESRB established its rating system, such designations were hardly needed because gaming technology lacked the realism needed to make a game unsuitable for young audiences.

But in 1994, as violent games such as "Mortal Kombat" began to use digitized versions of real film footage, the ISDA, with the cooperation of game developers, agreed to establish a ratings system.

Unlike similar ratings for motion pictures, the ESRB ratings don't carry federal restrictions prohibiting the sale of T- or M-rated games to minors.

But Nihei said game retailers are under significant pressure by the gaming industry not to sell adult-rated games to young audiences. "Retailers have to abide by that rating and are subject to penalty if they wind up selling games that are rated for older gamers to younger gamers."

ESRB also monitors the promotion of games through its advertising review council, which ensures that M-rated games aren't marketed to minors.

The organization recently launched a national publicity campaign featuring public service announcements by celebreties such as Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter and Regis Philbin to boost awareness of its game ratings

According to the organization, the ratings system functions primarily in an informational role, combining the overall age rating with content specific ratings for things such as sex, violence and profanity.

An ESRB representative said that it's up to individual consumers to weigh the value of both ratings when deciding what constitutes an appropriate gaming purchase.

In the video game world, sex and violence is a personal preference.

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