Violent video games existed nearly as long as the medium itself with the release of the film-adapted title "Death Race 2000" in the arcades in 1976. But titles like these mostly failed to garner attention from mainstream audiences. Also, video games were still very much a niche interest. The industry needed to develop a bit more before it could make an impact. Today, crusades against mature imagery in the media are a dime a dozen, and only rarely does one cause notable change. However in the early 1990s, unregulated content almost caused the United States to lose one of its most successful entertainment mediums.
After the release of Mortal Kombat in 1992, particularly the home console version for the Sega Genesis, video games came under fire from parents and politicians alike. When a character is about to defeat an opponent, a message reading "Finish Him" appears in the center of the screen allowing skilled players to input a button combination that, if done correctly, will lead to a fatality, a scene of over-the-top blood and gore, limb-severing, decapitation, incineration and other creative, yet gruesome death sequences. Senator Joe Lieberman found these fatalities to be the main draw of the title but was disturbed that it "rewarded violence." For this reason, Lieberman and a brigade of other politicians sought to ban video games. Of course, only some games were violent, and few to the extent of Mortal Kombat and its fatalities. There was no reason to bar young gamers from playing Super Mario World. Censoring bloody titles would prove a hindrance as well as Mortal Kombat was a top seller because of its content. The industry needed to figure out a way to keep a variety of games in stores but somehow distinguish which is which.
Films already had a ratings system, and many had been pushing for video games to follow suit for years (there is a great discussion about this in the film Moral Kombat, that's Moral, not Mortal, if you have the time to watch it). In 1994, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board launched with a ratings scale. The scale has changed slightly since the organization's inception, but it retains the same ideas and intentions. The following information is taken directly from the ESRB's official website and reproduced here verbatim.
Games rated EC generally have content that is suitable for children age three and up, and contains no material that parents might consider inappropriate.
Games rated E generally have content that is suitable for children age six and up. Games in this category may contain mild violence and mild language.
Games rated E10+ generally have content that is suitable for children age 10 and up, and might contain more mild violence, language, and minimally suggestive themes.
Games rated T generally have content that is suitable for children age 13 and up. These titles may contain violence, minimal blood, crude humor, suggestive themes, and infrequent use of strong language.
Games rated M generally have content that is suitable for people age 17 and up. These games often contain intense violence, strong content, blood and gore, and sexual content.
Games rated AO have content that is only suitable for people age 18 and up. These games can contain scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and nudity.
Games listed as RP are awaiting final rating from the ESRB. This rating is generally only seen in advertising prior to a game's release.
Each of these ratings is displayed on the front of a video game sales box or package. On the reverse side, the ESRB provides content specifications that explain why a video game has received its particular rating. These "content descriptors" account for themes including violence, blood and gore, language, drug and alcohol use, sexual content, and even simulated gambling. The individual specifications range from terms like "Mild Animated Violence," which is not uncommon in games rated Everyone, to "Intense Violence," which is never seen in titles below a Mature rating. These content descriptors are important to many families, because some parents may not be as concerned with an ultra-violent Mature title as they would be a Teen-rated title with suggestive language.
Until the mid to late-2000s, these ratings were mainly used by parents. There was no stopping a child from visiting his local video game retailer and purchasing a Mature-rated title. If a parent discovered their child had purchased the title, the store had no liability. After much criticism, the ESRB Retail Council was established in 2005 to prevent such sales transactions. Based on the ESRB's semi annual audits , it is clear retailers are becoming more compliant. Some states have even passed legislature regarding this issue.
Games rated Adults Only cannot be found in the vast majority of stores. Gamestop, Walmart, Best Buy and various others refuse to carry these titles. When it was discovered that the hit 2004 title Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas featured a modifier in its code allowing players to have interactive intercourse, the Hot Coffee Mod, as it became known, caused the ESRB to revoke the game's Mature rating, replacing it with Adults Only. Most stores pulled the game from shelves, requiring developer Rockstar's parent company Take-Two to re-release the entire game with just a bit of new coding.
In more recent years, many gamers have spent the majority of their play time online where they can interact with others. Even in games rated Everyone, there is no stopping an individual from using expletives or speaking of other mature subjects. For games that utilize online features, the ESRB includes a descriptor stating "Online Interactions Not Rated by the ESRB." However, this is not the only step the organization has taken to protect young gamers from potential threats on the internet. In 2001, the Federal Trade Commission announced that the ESRB has become a "safe harbor" program and will comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.