Slate's Explainer: How Video Games Get Rated

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has called for an investigation into a hidden feature of the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that depicts graphic sex acts. Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains how video games get rated.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now to another kind of simulated mayhem, this one a video game. Senator Hillary Clinton has called for an investigation of the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas after hackers discovered a secret section of the game that depicts graphic sex acts. Grand Theft Auto has a rating of M for mature audiences. Clinton says the game probably deserves the more restrictive rating of AO, for adults only. Our contributors at the online magazine Slate wondered where video game ratings come from. Here with an Explainer is Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS (Slate): They come from an industry-funded group called the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which operates similarly to the board that rates movies. The ESRB was founded in 1994 amid chatter that the government would start to regulate game makers. Software developers aren't required by law to submit their games to the ESRB, but many retailers only sell titles that receive a rating from the board. If a company does ask for a rating, it must comply with the rules of the ESRB or face penalties, which can include cash fines and product recalls.

When submitting a game for the board's scrutiny, the developer fills out a questionnaire that describes potentially offensive material, especially sequences involving sex, drugs or violence. The company must also supply the rating board with the scripts for any scenes with dialogue and material like song lyrics. The package sent to the ESRB includes a videotape showing the game's basic plot and each questionable scene. Such videos can be several hours long, but they don't include every single scene and level in the game because that would often take 50 hours or more.

At least three raters review the submissions; they're more likely to be homemakers than hard-core gamers. They must be at least 21 years old and have no connection to the video game industry. The final rating comes with a set of official content descriptors like `use of alcohol,' `fantasy violence,' `partial nudity' and `comic mischief.' The ESRB issues seven designations. They range from EC, early childhood, to AO, adults only. Out of the thousands of games that have been reviewed, only 18 have ever received the AO rating.

BRAND: That Explainer from Slate's Andy Bowers. It was compiled by Daniel Engber.

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