So, hey, the ESRB is taking action about lockboxes! Well, sort of. It’s adding a notification about lockboxes that doesn’t expressly mention or clarify them. There, that’s all sorted, an authority has cracked down on these practices! Sure, it’s not a crackdown that actually prevents them from being in the games in any way or prevents them from being used as the psychological levers of gambling without any of the oversight, but the important thing here is that is these games are boxed, you will see an ESRB thing warning you that lockboxes are in here! If you read that far.
Of course, this shouldn’t surprise anyone because when I called the ESRB an authority it was something that was not quite a lie but might as well be one. The ESRB is one of those things that’s just quietly been running in the background of video games for so long that it’s easy to forget about it, and for some of our readers you may not even be able to remember a time without it. So let’s talk about the Entertainment Software Rating Board and why it is not your friend.
Let’s start with a very brief US history lesson. Starting in 1992, senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin started holding hearings about the contents of video games being sold ostensibly for children. Night Trap and Mortal Kombat were two of the games considered of particular interest, with the former having FMV scenes which were considered sexually suggestive and the latter being… well, it’s Mortal Kombat. Spines get ripped out on the regular.
The result was the formation of Interactive Digital Software Association by major publishers Nintendo, Sega, Electronic Arts, and Acclaim (later to become the Entertainment Software Association, which is what ESA stands for) which itself formed the aforementioned Entertainment Software Rating Board. This organization was tasked with providing a rating for every video game sold on North American store shelves, with the formation announced in July 1994 and the labels going on software starting in September 1994. The original ratings were all age-based, ranging from “Early Childhood” to “Adults Only,” although most consumers these days are chiefly familiar with the more common ratings of E for Everyone (replacing “Kids to Adults”), T for Teen, and MA for Mature.
Do you note what was helpfully glossed over there? If not, go ahead and re-read to find what act of the Senate was used for the formation of the ESRB. But don’t try to look for it very hard.
The ESRB is not a legal organization; it is not an arm of the government and participation is not compulsory under the law. It is an entirely voluntary organization, just like the MPA ratings for films. There is nothing stopping, say, Electronic Arts from deciding that it doesn’t want to get this game rated and just releasing it, aside from the fact that many major retailers refuse to stock games that are not ESRB-rated.
But that is, again, voluntary. There is nothing illegal about it. That is kind of the entire point of the ESRB. It was a voluntary ratings agency formed by major publishers of video games, and while that looks like a charitable act, it also means that the people in charge of determining what is a completely valid thing to be shown to children of varying age groups are the same people who themselves wish to sell things to children of varying age groups.
Let’s be clear about something: At the core of it, I agree with both the stated values of the ESRB and similar ratings systems and don’t believe that this is something that should necessarily be handed off to a political organization. As someone who does believe in the importance of art being free of censorship, I think this is a legitimately thorny issue. Artists should not have to seek out permission from Joe Lieberman to explore potentially controversial artistic topics.
And yes, I also believe that “explosions of blood as I decapitate a monster” is an artistic topic. Escapism is valid and not somehow less important than spending half an hour engaged in serious discussion about the morality and consequences of monster decapitation.
At the same time, it’s important to note that the ESRB fundamentally provides a setup here where the authority saying “you can show this to your kids” is also the one enticing you to do so. And herein lies the problem because the ESRB not being beholden to any sort of central authority and being made as a way to defend the game industry from actual litigation is also a problem as well as a positive. Life is complicated.
Why is the ESRB adding these warnings about lockboxes? Because lockboxes are in the news now. And if people feel as if something with a vague sense of “authority” is taking care of these things and adding a rating, well, there’s no need to reopen any sort of hearings about these practices or take a deeper look at the way that these games are literally pressing those gambling levers in the heads of children. Someone took care of that; we can let it drift from our minds.
The same forces that made sure that yes, games are free from government oversight also mean that things you actually want government oversight for can squeak through.
So how do we fix all of this? I’m not sure. I don’t know if it’s really as simple as all of that. But I will say that we shouldn’t be treating the ESRB’s choice of adding a notification about lockboxes as any kind of win in the larger fight against this particular means of monetization. If you’re opposed to this, this is not a regulatory win; it’s a nod to the fact that the ESRB needs to clean up some dirty laundry, so to speak.
As with a lot of life, this is a more complex interaction of requirements and limitations than can be easily worn down into a narrow field of “this is good, this is bad.” The Comics Code Authority was a de facto censorship organization, and discarding it was in many ways a good thing; then again, things like the ESRB and the MPA do actually serve a positive function even if they can sometimes also serve as mouthpieces of the very organizations they are at least theoretically watching over.
What’s more important is to understand that the ESRB is not the same as an authority figure stepping in to take aim at lockboxes. The ESRB has its own agenda. It exists to genuinely provide ratings, yes, but also to provide ratings to draw attention away from some of the shadier parts of the industry. It is an organization formed to avoid dealing with oversight, and even if you believe that the lack of a government approval process regulating what can and cannot be in a video game is a good thing – which I do – that doesn’t mean it isn’t serving a function for the industry itself.
Or, put more simply? The ESRB is a tool. The ESRB is not your friend.