Seeking Truth in Video Game Ratings: Content Considerations for Media Regulation

Jason Tocci


Recent years have seen the video game industry come under increasing scrutiny for the content of games rated by its Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). This paper offers an analysis of the specific reform proposals made in U.S. legislation between 1999 and 2006, examining how lawmakers have conceptualized games and assessed the need for regulatory intervention. This analysis suggests that lawmakers have characterized game content as analogous to movie content, but incapable of thematic relevance, less fully reviewed by raters, and more powerful in negative effects on viewers. Accordingly, legislation has been crafted to regulate games more strictly than other visual media, including proposals to restrict sale to minors or to circumvent or replace the industry’s self-regulatory processes. As with other media-oriented moral panics, however, this approach represents a disproportionate degree of scrutiny on games relative to other media, considering how game play actually works and how the current regulatory system functions. In the interest of promoting a more technically informed approach to assessing game content, this article offers four formal properties of video game content for consideration: variability, repetitiveness, expandability, and directionality. The article concludes by suggesting alternative regulatory options for concerned parents, policy makers, and the ESRB itself.

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